Seven Founders with One Great Idea
Through the decades, creating a more educated community, increasing economic vitality and enhancing community quality of life have has remained the Foundation’s focus. To date, the Foundation has awarded more than $100,000,000 in community grants and $15,000,000 in scholarships -- all started with vision shared by seven friends on Christmas Eve 65 years ago. These community leaders were : W. Otis Briggs, Jr., Cyrus J. Fitton, William Murstein, Huntington V. Parrish, Frederick A. Reister, Robert M. Sohngen and William J. Wolf.
The incorporation papers were signed at the home of Otis Briggs, and his son Lloyd remembers that night. “He had the founders over to our house Christmas eve,” he said. “I was only nine years old and the only thing I can remember was a table full of men in the dining room. We didn’t go in there, but that‘s basically where it started.”
Briggs was the Foundation first’s executive director and remained in that post until he retired in 1980. Often described as the “architect” of the Foundation, under his leadership the net worth of the Foundation grew from $5,000 in 1951 to more than $2 million. “Otis loved the Foundation – he loved the concept that it was a vehicle of philanthropy in the community,” said his wife Virginia Briggs. “Individuals could direct their donations into the funds that they wanted.”
A member of a family whose dedication to Hamilton spans five generations and 150 years, attorney Cy Fitton was a trustee and president of the Foundation board. Cy’s grandson, Jim Fitton, explained the dynamics of the group of founders. “They were friends,” he said. “They played together and worked together. They did things to better their community, and collectively they came up with this notion of ‘let’s create something that’s going to live on forever.’ That was the intent.”
The initial gift of $5,000 was provided by highly regarded Hamilton philanthropist Bill Murstein. The longtime owner of Wilmur’s Department store also served as a trustee and president of the Hamilton Community Foundation. Though not originally from Hamilton, Murstein lived here for 25 years, and was active on many nonprofit boards and gave generously to many organizations. Friend Otis Briggs remarked that Murstein “helped many Hamilton people and Wilmer’s employees without recognition.”
“Hunt” Parrish gave many years of service to the Hamilton Community Foundation, as a trustee and board president. As an attorney who did estate planning, Parrish was often asked by clients about the needs of local charities, and he wanted to protect the donor’s intentions on how their gifts would be used in the future. His son, Lee, imagined what his father would think about the foundation today. “He believed in education so he would be very supportive, very surprised,” he said, pointing out that the Foundation now awards $1,000,000 in scholarships annually. “When you talk a million dollars, you figure in 1951 the whole thing started with $5,000 so obviously you just cannot project into the future what something like this might do. He’d be very proud.”
Fred A. Reister Born to a long time and established Hamilton family, Fred Reister was a respected civic leader and an attorney. He contributed many hours to both church and community, and he served as both a trustee of and president of the Foundation board. Contemplating what his father’s reaction might be to the Foundation’s progress, son John remarked, “I think he’d be very, very honored, to take a look at even a partial listing of the distributions that are made on an annual basis, the number of funds that have been created and the number of families that have bought in to the concept; he’d be amazed.”
Bob Sohngen was born and raised in Hamilton and graduated from Hamilton High School. “Bob was called ‘Cappy’ because he had been a Captain in the Army,” said Joe Marcum, who knew all seven Foundation founders. After his military career, Cappy returned to Hamilton to serve as an attorney, political leader and an associate justice of the Ohio Supreme Court. He was a director of the Ohio Casualty Insurance Company and a vice president and director of the Second National Bank of Hamilton. He also served Hamilton as a school board member and city solicitor.
William J. Wolf founded Southwestern Ohio Steel Co. With his wife Jean, he helped provide low and middle -income housing in Hamilton and served on many community boards, including the Hamilton Community Foundation. “He was born in Hamilton, he grew up in Hamilton, he loved Hamilton, his business life was in Hamilton,” said nephew Joe Hirschhorn. “Bill was very active in caring about the people in Hamilton.”