Baltimore has its share of philanthropists, but what makes Betsy and George Sherman stand out is the focus and the intensity of their commitment. She was a preschool teacher, he was a corporate executive for some of America's best-known companies. Together, they have not just opened their checkbook but have lent their passion and expertise to ensuring that all of the city's children have a chance to succeed.
Betsy Sherman is a native of Massachusetts and George of New York City. After graduating from Tufts, she worked as a teacher, eventually in Louisville, where she was the first Head Start teacher in the state of Kentucky and where he got his MBA. He went on to a series of top corporate positions, including executive vice president at Black and Decker.
But what Betsy learned from her years in teaching about the crucial importance of education, particularly in the early childhood years, stuck with them. They are deeply involved as donors, advisers, board members and cheerleaders for a carefully cultivated set of organizations and programs in Baltimore to make sure children come to school ready to learn and that their teachers are prepared to help them excel.
Baltimore Community Foundation CEO Tom Wilcox says he had talked to the Shermans over the years about philanthropy, but they were looking for a way to invest in early childhood development that would lead to quantifiable results. They eventually learned about Judy Centers — holistic early childhood education, wellness and social service programs that have shown marked success in improving Kindergarten readiness. The Shermans committed to supporting two more Judy Centers in Baltimore, Mr. Wilcox says — the next new one to be developed in the city and the fifth after that, a challenge to BCF and others to multiply the value of their contribution, which they did, and then some.
"They combine a deep sense of social justice, a deep interest in bringing opportunities to people with limited opportunities, to do something about the disparities that are a fact of life in our community, with being very strategic about how to do it," Mr. Wilcox says.
Pat Cronin, the executive director of the Family Tree, on whose board Betsy Sherman has served for two decades, says the couple have sharpened the organization's focus and connected it with partners in providing services and education to parents of young children. They have helped financially, to be sure, but they have also lent expertise to both short-term operations and long term goals, she says. Betsy Sherman has seen first-hand the challenges urban families face, and she brings that knowledge to her work in Baltimore, Ms. Cronin says.
"There are few donors that have lived in both worlds, that understand what families need on every level," Ms. Cronin says.
One of the things that makes the Shermans stand out is the degree to which they work as partners, combining their passions and skills. Where Betsy brings an understanding of education, George adds business acumen, helping the organizations with which they are involved to focus their mission statements, foster long-term financial security and develop leaders. Courtney Cass, the executive director of Teach for America in Baltimore, says George Sherman has not only been a valuable mentor to her but also to corps members and alumni, particularly those with entrepreneurial skills.
"They've had a major impact in helping us grow our team," Ms. Cass says.
At UMBC, the Sherman Scholars program turns out teachers who are prepared with the academic, leadership and cultural skills to teach science, technology, engineering and math in high-needs schools in Baltimore and throughout Maryland. Eighty percent of the 150 students the program has graduated over the last decade are still teaching, including last year's Baltimore County teacher of the year, Corey Carter, who was recognized not only for his excellence as a science teacher but also his work in mentoring students of color.
"I don't know anyone in our country who cares more about our children than the Shermans," says University of Maryland Baltimore County President Freeman A. Hrabowski III. "What makes their passion so impressive is that they begin with the early years. They understand the importance of thinking about the birth through Kindergarten and early childhood education. Second, they have developed a great example of math and science teaching through the Sherman scholars program in challenging students in Baltimore. They are passionate about the work, and about teachers and the children themselves."
Born: March 10, 1945 in Fitchburg, Mass.
Education: Fitchburg High School, 1963; B.A. Tufts University, 1967
Career: Teacher in Amherst, Va., and Louisville, Ky.
Born: Aug. 6, 1941, New York City
Education: Plainview High School, 1959; B.S. Long Island University, 1963; MBA University of Louisville, 1970
Career: Former executive vice president Black and Decker Corp.; president and CEO Danaher Corp., chairman of the board of Campbell Soup Company, chairman of the board of Rexnord Corp; currently founder and president of Cyprus Group LLC.
Civic involvement: The Shermans support a wide variety of causes in Baltimore, including: The Family Tree; the Sherman STEM Teacher Scholars Program at UMBC; the Center for Urban Families; Teach for America; the United Way of Central Maryland; the Judith P. Hoyer Early Child Care and Family Education Centers; the Open Society Institute; the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's OrchKids program; and McDonogh and Jemicy schools.
Family: Four sons, Jonathan, David, Michael and Matthew; four grandchildren