By GAIL FINEBERG
A man who never forgot that once his only possession was a porcelain figure of a horse and who now finds joy in using his wealth—the product of his own hands and ingenuity—to "make a difference in the lives of others" found himself the center of the Library's attention and affection in early May.
The Library celebrated the life and generosity of John W. Kluge, whose benefaction to the Library will endure in scholarship at the new Library of Congress center bearing his name, collections enriched by the James Madison Council he founded, career-development opportunities he has provided for the Library staff, and a National Digital Library that makes the Library's educational content available to schoolchildren everywhere.
"I would rather, by far, invest in people than buildings," Kluge said in a film about his life, philosophy and philanthropy. "If I can infuse a mind to improve itself, that will pass on to their children and their children's children."
Produced by Judith Hallet and narrated by James Earl Jones, the film, "John Kluge, The Will to Make a Difference," was one highlight of a surprise tribute to Kluge on May 6. The next day he was surprised again as he listened to scholars describe their work with the Library's collections during the dedication of the John W. Kluge Center, which he endowed with a $60 million gift. (See related story here.)
Another surprise was the premiere performance of a march that was reconstructed from an unfinished John Philip Sousa manuscript discovered in the Library's collections. Resplendent in a white uniform, Library staff member Loras John Schissel led the Virginia Grand Military Band in a snappy rendition of "The Library of Congress March."
The May 6 program included celebratory remarks by Librarian of Congress James Billington, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Madison Council Vice Chairman Edwin Cox; readings by Poet Laureate Billy Collins; songs by crooner Tony Bennett; and the presentation of the Library's Living Legend Award to Kluge.
The Librarian welcomed guests to the Library "on behalf of the Congress that sustains it and the staff that serve it. Tonight we gather to honor John W. Kluge, a man whose vision of the importance of knowledge and opportunity for our country embodies the spirit of this magnificent space," Billington said. "John Kluge, along with others on the James Madison Council that he chairs, has helped in many ways … to make this, America's oldest federal cultural institution, an innovative force for the new millennium."
He noted in particular that Kluge and David Packard, with their 1994 contributions later matched by Congress, "planted the seeds" for the National Digital Library. "This multimedial educational resource now attracts nearly 80 million hits a month, and the Library as a whole received last year more than 2 billion electronic transactions," Billington said.
Stevens, who is president pro-tem of the Senate and chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library, presented Kluge with a Senate Resolution "thanking you for all you have done to enhance and perpetuate this Library that has served this Congress so well."
In the opening scene of the Kluge film, Stevens said, "John Kluge is an American icon. He's been an entrepreneur with a heart."
The film traced Kluge's life and guiding principles of hard work and, always, an awareness of those he could help. Born in eastern Germany on Dec. 21, 1914, Kluge never knew his father, who was killed early in World War I. In 1922, with his mother and stepfather, he sailed across the Atlantic to America. Passing the Statue of Liberty on the way to Ellis Island, the 8-year-old stood at the ship railing, clutching the only thing he owned, a small Dresden figurine of a proud white charger mounted by a soldier in a red coat (pictured, right).
"I treasured that horse," Kluge recalled in the film. "I still have it. And every time I think I'm too smart for my own britches, I look at that horse and I know exactly where I came from."
Not only did he not forget his immigrant roots, he remembered his high school typing teacher who took him in and inspired him to study hard and apply for a Columbia University scholarship. He won the scholarship and, upon graduation with a degree in economics, $2,000 in a history contest. He bought his teacher a new Ford. "I had more fun giving her that car than anything I can remember," he said.
Kluge bought his first radio station, WGAY in Silver Spring, in 1946, and then purchased three Channel 5 television stations to make up for a poker hand he would have won, had not a fateful knock on the door interrupted the clandestine college game. He eventually built a vast empire of independent television and radio stations. His Metromedia conglomerate included the Ice Capades and Harlem Globetrotters.
Throughout his life Kluge shared the fruits of his success. Observed Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), "He has given to so many organizations and worthwhile causes over the years, but only without the kind of recognition others demand of their contributions. Those of us who have known him will talk about him as the embodiment of what the generosity of spirit really means."
Kluge's endowments include tuition for 200 minority students to attend Columbia University. "As an immigrant, you are a minority," he said. "If minorities get the proper tools, they'll do as well as anybody else. … [It's] the only way for a country to be strong."
Said Library staffer Angela Kinney in a film segment about the Kluge-endowed Leadership Development Program, which has graduated 30 employees and will begin a fourth offering in the fall, "Education is what is needed for you to be able to achieve great things in your life, and so I really have to thank Mr. Kluge for providing me, as a minority, an opportunity in the Leadership Development Program." She recalled the powerful impact of a speech he made to her class, in which he recalled convincing a Columbia University scholarship board that, "with these hands, I can do anything."
After more than a decade of collaborating on ways to "get the champagne out of the bottle," Billington and Kluge once again put their heads together to conceptualize Billington's dream of bringing "thinkers and doers" together in the nation's capital. On Oct. 5, 2000, the Librarian announced Kluge's gift of $60 million to support an academic center in which senior scholars and junior fellows could gather to make use of the Library's incomparable collections and to interact with members of Congress.
Kluge's gift also established a $l million prize to be given in recognition of the lifetime of achievement in the humanities and social sciences, comparable to the Nobel Prizes in literature and science. The first prize will be awarded in November.
Of Kluge's legacy, Jaroslav Pelikan, the Sterling professor of history emeritus at Yale University and the first senior scholar to hold a Kluge chair, said: "Generosity without vision can be dangerous, and vision without generosity can be useless. And so, long after all of us are gone, that benefaction will continue to make it possible to exploit the riches of the Library of Congress. Five hundred years from now, I wonder now many books will there be that have his fingerprints on them?"
The film ends with Kluge's reflection: "To me, philanthropy comes naturally, because I just know when you pass out of this picture, you don't take anything with you.
"The only thing I brought to this country was that horse, and I'm not going to take it out of this country, either.
"In the sands of time, we make very little difference, but what difference we can make, we should try to make."
Gail Fineberg is editor of The Gazette, the Library's staff newsletter.