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Philanthropist says giving brings her joy

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Local officials can be thankful for much this holiday season, including the philanthropic efforts of Charleston resident Betty Schoenbaum.

Schoenbaum, 95, splits her time between homes in West Virginia and Florida. But the widow of the late hospitality giant Alex Schoenbaum has never forgotten Charleston and the surrounding area where she lived for so long.

Schoenbaum has donated millions of dollars to various causes around the world through the family's foundation. Many of her donations have helped fund major projects in Charleston and Kanawha County. 

She would like to see more people follow her example.

"The joy of giving is the joy of living," a smiling Schoenbaum said. "Joy beyond description, that's what I get from giving."

And if that's the case, then Schoenbaum has experienced a lot of joy, because she has given a lot.

Charleston City Manager David Molgaard believes it would have been impossible for the city to tackle some projects — like constructing Schoenbaum Stage along the Kanawha River — without donations from the local philanthropist.

Molgaard said the city had opted not to place a stage at Haddad Riverfront Park in Charleston because the money was lacking. Then Schoenbaum offered about $350,000 to pay for construction of the now-iconic structure.  

"I don't think that whole project would have been as dramatic or made nearly as much of an impression with people if we didn't have the stage," he said.

The city also ran short of funds during construction of the project, Molgaard said. Schoenbaum again stepped forward with the $78,000 needed to add decorative lighting to the stage.

The lights really make the stage "pop," he said.

The stage and lighting isn't just pretty, but also serves as an economic engine for downtown Charleston, he said. The stage is a prime venue for the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra and the summer Live on the Levee Concert Series.

Both attract people to downtown Charleston, he said.

The stage and the riverfront park also have encouraged business development, Molgaard said. The investment in the riverfront shows businesses that city leaders, and residents, are serious about developing the downtown district.

Molgaard believes the millions of dollars in improvements at the old Charleston House Hotel on Kanawha Boulevard, currently branded as a Ramada Inn, were prompted by the city's and Schoenbaum's investments in the riverfront. When finished, the hotel will be a Four Seasons by Sheraton.

The owners of the hotel, BBL Hospitality, also have invested in a new restaurant on the Virginia Street side of the hotel, the Recovery Sports Grill.

The improvements to the hotel aren't the only investment Molgaard sees as a direct result of riverfront development.

"The announcement of the hotel at the confluence of the Kanawha and Elk rivers, I think resulted in the demonstration of the fact that the community is committed to bringing people into our town for events, conventions and festivals," he said.

Councilwoman Mary Jean Davis has become close friends with Schoenbaum over the years. They first met when the Schoenbaums donated money for one of the sculptures in front of the Charleston Civic Center.

"She loves to give back to the city," Davis said. "She feels that giving back is something that successful people should do."

Davis called Schoenbaum a caring person who wants to give back to the community that helped her and her husband become successful in business.

"She loves the city of Charleston," Davis said.

Schoenbaum has supported more than arts in the community. She also provided funding for the soccer fields at Coonskin Park. She did so in honor of her late husband, who was an All American football player at Ohio State University. 

She has supported youth and families through massive contributions to the Schoenbaum Family Resource Center on Charleston's West Side.

The center, which opened in 2002, provides support programs such as job training, educational programs and day care, said Loretta Jett Haddad, president and chief executive officer at the center.

The center has about 80,000 visits per year, she said.

"It would not have been possible for the center to open without the Schoenbaum family's contribution," Haddad said. "And it would be very difficult for these families to find these services without the center." 

The Schoenbaum family provided $2.5 million to build the center and makes a yearly donation for maintenance.

Schoenbaum was exposed to philanthropic attitudes at an early age. Her grandmother had three little tin boxes that she put money into every Friday, she said.

The money was given to charitable organizations.

"And my grandmother was so very poor," she said. "But she taught me to give to the less fortunate. When you have enough for yourself, and there is so much need in the world, you should help the less fortunate.

Schoenbaum met her husband, Alex, at Ohio State and soon found that he also had a passion for philanthropy.

"He thought bigger than I did," she said.

For example, he raised $31 million for the Eastern Region of the Salvation Army over a five-year time span. 

The foundation has provided millions of dollars in scholarships to Ohio State and West Virginia University. It also has made numerous donations to the YMCA and the YWCA, she said.

"My motto for life is give while you live so you have the immeasurable joy of making the world a better place," Schoenbaum said.   

Contact writer Paul Fallon at or 304-348-4817. Follow him at 



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