FEATURE — Summer 2008
   

  Open Hearts Open Opportunities

Alumnus George Bauer and his wife, Carol, dedicate themselves to others. Their global stewardship helps newborns in intensive care, students in high school and college, and young women in distant lands.

By Candace O’Connor

Blackie, Annie, Mabel, and Bambi—cows that George Bauer raised on his family’s hardscrabble farm in the Missouri Ozarks—helped him get into Washington University. On his scholarship application, he promised to sell one of them each year to pay his incidental expenses. Long afterward, a still-surprised but touched admissions director admitted to Bauer, B.S.I.E. ’53, M.S.I.E. ’59, that he had never seen a form quite like it.

That childhood, marked by hard work but not much money, set the stage for a conviction strongly held by Bauer and his wife, Carol, a St. Louisan who also grew up in happy but modest circumstances. They firmly believe that the financial rewards they garnered from Bauer’s 31 years at IBM and a second career as an investment banker are only theirs in trust.

“We view ourselves as the stewards of whatever wealth came to us,” says Bauer, now a resident of Wilton, Connecticut. “Lots of people have high energy levels and good minds; we just happened to be in the right place at the right time. We were fortunate, and now we are stewards of that good luck. However, we are quick to suggest to our children what Louis Pasteur said about luck seeming to favor the prepared mind.”

Quietly but generously, the Bauers have funded a heart-warming array of projects—many related to children and teens. At Washington University, they endowed a new professorship at the Olin Business School in corporate ethics and governance, a kind of antidote to the Enron- and United Way-type scandals that the Bauers deplore. At Norwalk Hospital, they funded a neonatal intensive care unit named for the 5-day-old son, Jeffrey Peter Bauer, they lost suddenly many years ago.

Another benevolence began in 1994 on a University trip to Thailand. In the village of Chiang Rai, they heard Baptist missionaries describe the need for a second halfway house to take in young women fleeing virtual slavery in Bangkok brothels. The Bauers responded with a gift that made this building possible. They remained involved, too. Today, the New Life Center has four buildings with 150 women as young as 11 years old, who receive kindness and education. Several have graduated from college and come back to help.

George and Carol Bauer sponsor high school students in the “I Have a Dream” program. As sponsors, they help children from a South Norwalk housing project. In the late 1990s, the Bauers “adopted” 43 young students, making them an offer of post-high school training if they stayed in school. Today, they still have 25 on track, with four in college. At left, the Bauers are pictured with (from left) Tiffany Reid, sophomore; James Shaw, senior; Jessica Davis, senior; Taylor Reid, senior; and Xavier Kitt, sophomore.

In other philanthropic efforts, Carol recently received training to become a hospital chaplain at Norwalk Hospital, and George is a member of the New York Regional Cabinet for Washington University and interviews prospective students.

Building a strong foundation

George Bauer’s father was working as an auto mechanic in St. Louis when the years spent lying on cold concrete took their toll. With tuberculosis threatening, he had to move to the country or risk early death. He bought a 150-acre farm south of St. Louis—“more rocks than soil, I think,” says Bauer now. But his father thrived, eventually living to age 82; the family learned together about rural life; and Bauer attended a one-room schoolhouse.

When it was time for college, Bauer delighted in receiving a scholarship to Washington University’s engineering school. During school, he lived with his grandmother in St. Louis to make ends meet. In class, he had some extraordinary professors, including Gustav Mesmer, who taught applied mechanics as well as life lessons in courage. As a young faculty member in Germany during World War II, Mesmer refused to join the Nazi Party, and he once gave a Ph.D. exam in a roadside ditch amid Allied bombing.

A world religions class from a young professor, Huston Smith, also had a lifelong impact on Bauer, who was struggling to sort out his own theological views. Smith “was absolutely inspirational,” says Bauer, “with an ascetic look and a mystical quality about him,” and his class “brought me to a much more ecumenical understanding of the spiritual world around me.”

Smith’s class also led Bauer to an office on the Student Religious Council, which met with groups from other area schools—including Harris Teachers’ College, where a bright young student, Carol Bruns, caught his eye. Friends at first, they began dating after a fateful 1953 lunch at Medart’s Restaurant, when Bauer bought her a hamburger. On their 50th anniversary, they reserved the same booth (known then as the Cheshire Inn)—and this time, “I snapped for the next level and got her a cheeseburger,” he says.

Writing a master’s thesis on the first IBM computer, he was a natural for a job at IBM. He became a salesman on the McDonnell Douglas account just at the time when the company—flush with a new contract for the first Mercury space capsule—was “buying computers like they were going out of style,” he says. For three decades, he remained with IBM, rising to executive positions and moving 18 times in 25 years. On one stint in Paris, the Bauers lived on the grounds of Napoleon and Josephine’s “Malmaison” chateau. While there, Carol, a history buff, developed a successful lecture tour on the lives of the Bonapartes.

Sharing good fortune with others

The Bauers, who believe strongly in transferring private wealth to a public trust, set up their own family foundation. Working with politicians in Washington, D.C., George Bauer also lobbied for changes in the law allowing donors to give appreciated securities to foundations at market value, thus allowing a substantial tax break. This effort dramatically increased donations worldwide.

“We view ourselves as the stewards of whatever wealth came to us,” says George Bauer. “Lots of people have high energy levels and good minds; we just happened to be in the right place at the right time. We were fortunate, and now we are stewards of that good luck.”

They also favor a “hands-on” approach to giving: To them, you don’t just write a check and walk away; you become personally involved. At Norwalk Hospital (in Norwalk, Connecticut), Carol has done volunteer work since 1978, heading the volunteer board, joining the board of trustees, and finally serving as its chairman. Most recently, she has received training to become a hospital chaplain, with special empathy for women who lose children soon after delivery.

The “I Have a Dream” program holds another special place in their hearts. As sponsors, they help children from a South Norwalk housing project who often have chaotic home lives, little academic motivation, and no hope of higher education. In the late 1990s, they “adopted” 43 youngsters, making them an offer of post-high school training if they stayed in school. Today, they still have 25 on track, with four currently in college.

“But let’s not be too glowing about it,” says Carol Bauer. “It has been a tough road.” They sponsored after-school classes and enrichment activities. Determined to give these kids the same experiences that suburban children have, they took them to theater performances, dance classes, and swim lessons. But, along the way, some promising students had to curtail their college classes to become the family breadwinners. Right now, they have one academic “star,” Tiffany, who dreams of a top-notch school, Harvard or Washington University. “We have our fingers crossed for her,” says Bauer.

The Bauers raised their own three children to appreciate philanthropy, and now their five grandchildren also volunteer. “You have to expose your kids to circumstances beyond their own. This helps them understand they are not where they are because of any innate value of their own,” says George Bauer. “They are simply very, very fortunate.”

Candace O’Connor is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.