"Many know Nate more as a legend than as a man."
Making a name in business
Little in the first 35 years of Nathan Cummings' life suggested that he would become one of the great immigrant success stories of the 20th century. He was born in October, 1896 in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada to Jewish parents who had fled Lithuania seeking economic opportunity and freedom from religious persecution. Around the time of World War I, the family settled in Montreal, and Nathan left school to find a job. After years of working as a traveling salesman, Nathan finally opened his own shoe factory in 1924. It failed eight years later in the midst of the Great Depression, but he was determined to pay off his debts. "Although legally he was not required to pay off any of his creditors, he felt a moral obligation to make good on his commitments. And that he did.
"I know he took great pride in keeping his word," recounted James Cummings, Nathan's oldest grandson. The elder Cummings started over to support his family. Married in 1919, he and Ruth Kellert had three children in the next six years: Beatrice, Herbert, and Alan.
With Nathan's work frequently taking him away from home and with his wife chronically ill, their in-laws, the Blocks, helped raise the children. Grandfathers who built synagogues and aunts and uncles who led Jewish welfare organizations instilled in the three Cummings children indelible lessons about individual and communal responsibility. Beatrice (or Buddy, as she was known) recalled, "it was during my grammar school days that I began to understand about tzedaka*, about my responsibility to help the poor...that we were, indeed, our brother's keeper."
As his children reached their teens, Nathan Cummings became increasingly successful. By the late 1930s, he had commenced what proved to be a legendary career in the food business. During this time, he bought and sold small companies, including one in Baltimore which brought the family to settle permanently in the United States. Later, in the 1940s, he entered the wholesale grocery business, acquiring old firms and streamlining their operations. Now based in Chicago, he conducted business with transactions totaling millions of dollars, and his prosperity attracted national attention. In 1945, Time magazine proclaimed him the "Duke of Groceries" when he set up the Consolidated Grocers Corporation as a holding company; later it was known as Consolidated Foods, and then finally in late 1984, as the Sara Lee Corporation--named after the most famous consumer product line held by the multi-billion dollar conglomerate.
Becoming a philanthropist
Nathan Cummings' growing wealth inevitably transformed him into a public figure. Starting in the 1950s, and increasingly over the next two decades, his donations to a variety of organizations epitomized, in the best tradition of tzedaka, the philosophy of "giving back to the community." Health, the arts, and Jewish life were the areas he favored. He gave generously to the Chicago-area synagogue, where he and his children, now married and beginning their own families, worshipped. He helped the United Jewish Appeal raise millions to benefit American and Israeli communities; he visited the new state of Israel and gave additional gifts. To honor his wife, who died in 1952, he funded medical research and the building of new health facilities in Chicago at Michael Reese Hospital and in New York at Sloan-Kettering. Several colleges and universities received arts centers as beneficiaries of his largesse. The "Cummings" name was inscribed on many of the buildings to which he had contributed.
As Nathan Cummings became more affluent, he began to collect art, an activity which he characterized as "a source of tremendous satisfaction." His collections were diverse--ranging from French Impressionist paintings and modern sculpture to ancient Peruvian ceramics. He enjoyed lending his pictures for exhibitions because he believed that "anyone who has the good fortune to own lovely things is only a trustee for humanity." Eventually, he gave various art works to major museums and a large collection of pre-Columbian Peruvian ceramics to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In recognition of his generosity, Nathan Cummings received many honors and awards. His philanthropy and business acumen brought him into contact with prominent politicians, as well as figures in the arts and entertainment worlds, and members of the international social set. He met with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and U.S. Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. He even played host to royalty--Prince Phillip, and on other occasions the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. On Nathan Cummings' 80th birthday, he was entertained by his friend Bob Hope who amused him greatly by emerging from a giant Sara Lee cake. Nathan maintained homes in Chicago, in Palm Beach, and in New York, where he had his own table at the prestigious 21 Club.
Nathan Cummings found himself at ease with heads of state and international celebrities. Yet he never forgot his humble origins, nor those significant places where his family had established their lives and begun to thrive. He gave substantial gifts to the Montreal Jewish community and supported such American groups as the Anti-Defamation League (of the B'Nai B'rith) that would keep strong the country where he had flourished. Nathan Cummings, the prosperous son of immigrants, considered it of paramount importance "to build a better future for all by preserving the democratic integrity of society and insuring the well-being and security of the American community."
Providing for family and foundation
As part of that future, Nathan Cummings provided for his immediate family (and continued supporting his parents throughout their lives). His three children and nine grandchildren received sufficient gifts from him to assure their financial security. In 1958 he spoke to his children of a foundation which would function as a mechanism that would help his grandchildren stay in touch with each other and, furthermore, would "accustom them to the understanding that we must contribute to worthy causes, thus sharing our good fortune with those less fortunate than we are." When he died in February of 1985, in his 88th year, he left most of his estate, then estimated at $200 million, to a foundation he had already established in 1949. Known first as The Cummings Foundation, it had been the vehicle for some of his charitable giving, and for years Nathan had run it himself--a typical pattern for successful men of his generation. In 1969 it was renamed The Nathan Cummings Foundation, and at his death, the endowment was valued at approximately $26 million.
Nathan Cummings' children were not actively involved with the foundation until after he died. Only then did it become the engine for family unity that he had envisioned almost 30 years earlier. His will contained a standard charitable gift clause, which left his residual estate to the foundation "for its charitable, eleemosynary, educational, scientific, literary, religious and artistic purposes." He provided no instructions as to what projects the foundation should fund or how it should operate. When he was alive and Buddy, Herbert or Alan had pressed him for specific directions, he would (as Buddy remembered) duck the question and say, "I feel it's up to you to make wise decisions. You know what my interests have been in the community, and this should be a sufficient road map for you." Nathan Cummings had made another major decision: he was not going to control the foundation after his death. For a foundation endowment of this size, the complete lack of specificity was highly unusual, an unexpected about-face for a man who had so dominated his world. Not surprisingly, it also proved an enormous challenge to his family.
Learning about foundations
Nathan Cummings' three children--the second generation--became trustees of the foundation, along with their father's close advisors, his lawyer and his accountant. With no statement of donor intent, it was up to these five individuals to shape the foundation. For the trustees, the task seemed daunting, the numbers staggering.
The enormous responsibility seemed overwhelming until the third generation--notably the seven older grandchildren, then in their thirties--offered to help. Excited by the prospects, they said to their parents, "We want to be part of this. Let us work together." The grandchildren saw many advantages: learning about organized philanthropy, carrying forward family values, and forming "a family partnership" that would bring the three branches--geographically dispersed for years--back together. (For a few years in their childhood, all the cousins had, in fact, lived on nearby streets in Winnetka, a suburb of Chicago.) "Moreover," they said to their parents, as Michael Cummings ( Alan's son) later remembered, "we think it's a wonderful opportunity not only for you, but for us and our children." The parents agreed and determined that their children would assist as an "advisory committee." The three oldest grandchildren were granted official status as minor officers of the foundation: James K. Cummings, Herbert's son; Ruth C. Sorensen, Alan's daughter; and Robert (Rob) N. Mayer, Buddy's son. A leader was needed to organize the planning and estate matters. Because Alan had a terminal illness, Buddy and Herb flipped a coin, and Herb became the first president of the foundation.
All the grandchildren (except for the youngest) and their spouses pitched in. They talked with board members and officers of foundations and listened to experts who detailed the various options and tasks involved in planning a foundation. Like her cousins, Ruth Sorensen was energized by the challenge of her grandfather's bequest:
"I felt enormous excitement and commitment to it, and thought, 'This is a great task.' Instead of being intimidated or feeling that it was a burden, I thought, 'amazing opportunity.' It was amazing to be able to work with family. It was amazing to be able to carry forward the name of Nathan Cummings."
Most importantly, the grandchildren persuaded their elders, who were initially skeptical about the need for such assistance, to hire a consultant well-versed in foundation work. A professional could educate the family about organized philanthropy, guide the family discussion on values and objectives, and help define a mission and various program areas for the foundation. Furthermore, a neutral person could defuse the emotional components of family dynamics by mediating disagreements that might arise among siblings or cousins, or between generations, or among the different branches of the family. (The branches were the families of Buddy, Herb and Alan.) The family selected Leeda Marting, an experienced family foundation administrator, as their facilitator. With her help, they moved rapidly to focus on the most important issues.