Atheist Wilson Gives $22.5 Million for Catholic Fund (Update2)

Date: Thursday, May 24, 2007
Author: Patrick Cole, Bloomberg

May 23 (Bloomberg) -- Philanthropist and retired hedge-fund manager Robert W. Wilson said he is giving $22.5 million to the Archdiocese of New York to fund a scholarship program for needy inner-city students attending Roman Catholic schools.

Wilson, 80, said in a phone interview today that although he is an atheist, he has no problem donating money to a fund linked to Catholic schools.

``Let's face it, without the Roman Catholic Church, there would be no Western civilization,'' Wilson said. ``Shunning religious organizations would be abhorrent. Keep in mind, I'm helping to pay tuition. The money isn't going directly to the schools.''

Wilson's donation is the largest the archdiocese has ever received. The money will be used to fund the Cardinal's Scholarship Program, which was started in 2005 to give disadvantaged students attending the archdiocese's inner-city schools partial or full tuition grants, Jacqueline LoFaro, the archdiocese's associate superintendent of schools, said in a phone interview today.

``It was a chance for a very modest amount of money to get kids out of a lousy school system and into a good school system,'' Wilson said.

An anonymous donor has given an additional $4.5 million to the archdiocese after learning that Wilson's gift would be announced today, church officials said.

Future Discussion

Edward Cardinal Egan, the head of the archdiocese, didn't reconsider the donation from Wilson because of his atheism, said spokesman Joseph Zwilling. Egan and Wilson, who was raised an Episcopalian, met for the first time today, he said.

``The Cardinal said that he and Mr. Wilson are both opera lovers, and the two of them will get together to talk about opera and `move on to other things,''' Zwilling said, referring to a future discussion about religion. ``The fact is that Mr. Wilson helping to give these children a chance is a good thing, and a chance to attend Catholic school is a good thing.''

In recent years, the New York archdiocese has faced declining donations, church attendance and parish memberships, forcing the closure of some schools and churches.

In 2006, the archdiocese closed eight metropolitan-area schools, Zwilling said.

About 44,000 of the archdiocese's 107,000 students are enrolled in its inner-city schools in New York, LoFaro said. Of that inner-city student population, more than half live below the federal poverty line, she said.

Generous Donor

``This kind of money will keep this kind of education available for kids who can't afford it,'' LoFaro said. ``And it logives the families a choice.'' Applicants don't have to be Roman Catholic to be eligible for the scholarships.

Wilson gave $147.2 million in 2006 to charities, making him the 12th most generous donor in the U.S., according to a survey by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. He has made gifts in the past to the Nature Conservancy and the World Monuments Fund.

Wilson started has career at First Boston Corp. as a trainee after graduating from college and spending two years in law school. He managed money from the late 1940s until he started a small hedge fund in 1968. He turned his initial $15,000 in investment into about $200 million. He invested in stocks that he expected to rise in value and also sold stocks short -- selling borrowed securities in the expectation their prices would decline and he could buy them back cheaper.

Opera, Modern Art

A former chairman of the New York City Opera, Wilson is on the board of the Whitney Museum of American Art. In an interview with the Associated Press in 2006, Wilson said he wants to give away 70 percent of his more than $500 million in assets before he dies.

With Wilson's donation, the archdiocese's scholarship fund has raised $97 million of the program's $158 million goal. LoFaro said the archdiocese wants to raise the remaining money by 2010 in order to fund 11,700 scholarships.

``This is a good time for donors to recognize the good work that we do,'' LoFaro said. ``Catholic education has long been recognized as being particularly successful in reaching at-risk, inner-city children.''

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Cole in New York at .