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Family foundation leaves mark on downtown

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Stroll around downtown Columbus and you’ll be hard-pressed to find something that doesn’t have the Irwin-Sweeney-Miller Foundation fingerprint on it.

Walk to The Commons at Third and Washington. The original Commons, which opened in 1973, was a gift to the city from the foundation. The redeveloped Commons in existence today received $3 million in funding from the foundation.

Take a peek inside The Commons. You’ll see the Luckey Climber and the Chaos I sculpture. Both were paid for by the foundation, which was started in 1952 by the Miller family. Chaos I stands in the Miller-Tangeman Lobby.

Jog over to Fifth and Jackson streets, where you’ll find YES Cinema, operated by Lincoln-Central Neighborhood Family Center. The foundation assisted the center’s plan to open the theater and conference center.

Head east on Fifth Street and you’ll come upon the Columbus Area Visitors Center. The foundation donated the house that was converted into the visitors center. The Dale Chihuly glass chandelier hanging inside is a family gift, too.

And just a tad farther east on Fifth Street, you’ll see a large arch sculpture in front of the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library. It is also a donation from the family foundation.

The foundation last week announced its final local gift: $2 million to Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County.

Since its creation, the foundation has donated more than $57 million to efforts in Bartholomew County, which translates to more than $101 million in today’s dollars.

For the past four years, however, the foundation has been spending down its assets in an effort to close, following the death of J. Irwin Miller in 2004 and his wife Xenia in 2008.

“Words cannot describe what Irwin-Sweeney-Miller Foundation meant to Bartholomew County. It’s one of the most significant foundations to ever exist here. It was run by a historical family that cared so much for the community,” said Randy Allman, executive director of Lincoln-Central Neighborhood Family Center, which launched in 1994 with help from the foundation.

Family stewardship

The original Irwin-Sweeney-Miller Foundation board members were Nettie Sweeney Miller; her children, J. Irwin Miller and Clementine Tangeman; her sister Elsie Irwin Sweeney; and close family associate George W. Newlin.

Sweeney Miller was the wife of Hugh Thomas Miller, a college professor and politician who was a U.S. Senate candidate in 1914.

J. Irwin Miller served as chairman of two of the county’s major businesses: Cummins Engine Co. and Irwin Union Bank.

The foundation initially was a vehicle for one of Columbus’ oldest families to fund and then make grants to charities in which each of them had a personal interest. Siblings Miller and Tangeman led the decision making.

“I think Dad (J. Irwin Miller) and (Aunt) Clementine had this mutual understanding between them to support the other’s causes, no matter what they were,” Elizabeth G. Miller, one of Miller’s children and a past foundation board member, told The Republic in January 2010.

Initially, grants were often national in scope, such as for civil rights efforts.

By the 1970s, with other foundations championing national issues, the Irwin-Sweeney-Miller Foundation’s directors refocused their efforts locally.

Also, other family members took active roles with the foundation, such as Xenia Miller, wife of J. Irwin Miller, and their children: Elizabeth, Margaret, Catherine, Hugh and William. Xenia Miller became president of the foundation after Tangeman’s death in 1996.

The children were invited to join the ISMF board at age 18 but rotated on and off the board. In the mid-1970s, all family members and their spouses were added as regular trustees, according to a study by the National Center for Family Philanthropy on the foundation’s spend-down.

“ISMF was founded by a previous generation of the family. It was their philosophy that since wealth is not created by a single individual or a single generation, the best approach is to handle our assets as if we were stewards of them rather than owners,” Will Miller told The Republic in January 2010.

Lynne Maguire, Will Miller’s wife and current head of the foundation board, said the family viewed the foundation’s money as if they were lucky to have it.

“Because we had it, we had the right to use it in a ways that make the world a better place,” she said.

The foundation always tried to have short-term and long-term philosophies, Maguire said.

Short-term plans included ensuring people had enough to eat and would have a warm place to stay on a cold winter’s night.

Education and economic development are examples of long-term plans, she said.

Sarla Kalsi, executive director of the Irwin-Sweeney-Miller Foundation since 1979, recalled being at a Super Bowl party one year, when temperatures were freezing.

Tangeman called and asked her what the foundation was doing to help make sure nobody was homeless. Kalsi said she replied to Tangeman the foundation had given money to Love Chapel and the Salvation Army so they could provide shelter for anybody asking for a place to stay.

While the Irwin-Sweeney-Miller Foundation played a role in the creation of community organizations, buildings and artworks, foundation members didn’t act alone, Maguire said. Collaboration with individuals and organizations in the community made these things possible, she said.

Kalsi added that J. Irwin Miller and Tangeman expressed that the foundation should be investing in people when it came to grants.

The deep relationships in the community are the reason the foundation continued its commitment here after Miller’s 2004 death. The foundation began thinking about its strategy for future grant making. One option that was considered was dividing the foundation into five separate ones, to represent each of the five Miller children, most of whom no longer lived in Columbus, Kalsi said.

That didn’t happen, but the foundation did choose to focus its assets in Bartholomew County, Kalsi said.

Community minded

Former Mayor Fred Armstrong had many dealings with the foundation during his 16 years in office. One important issue involved downtown redevelopment.

Armstrong and Will Miller were co-chairs of the Vision 20/20 Steering Committee. In 2005, the foundation decided to direct the bulk of its assets to the Vision 20/20 projects.

“They were just kind and committed to doing what was right for the community,” Armstrong said.

The foundation kept its commitments and was fair, said Doug Otto, who had served as president of the United Way of Bartholomew County for 17 years.

United Way received financial support over the years from the foundation, but it was one of 12 area agencies that was informed in 2005 that it would eventually lose funding from ISMF, which was shifting its focus to the revitalization of the downtown. The agencies were told their gifts would be phased out in three to five years.

“They kept their commitment,” Otto said.

“They were extremely generous when they were there and they eased out in a very fair manner and didn’t leave anybody hanging,” Otto said.

Allman said the financial support of the foundation always was appreciated, but so was how board and staff members listened and provided technical assistance.

He recalled how Lincoln-Central Neighborhood Family Center — another of the agencies which lost funding — had an idea about 10 years ago to open a movie theater that it also could use to provide employment opportunities to the population

it served.

Center personnel shared the idea with the foundation. What resulted was YES Cinema.

Tracy Souza, Heritage Fund’s president and a former Cummins executive, echoed Allman’s thoughts about how the foundation’s board members and staff listened to other people’s ideas.

She recalled J. Irwin Miller telling the Cummins Foundation members they needed to be open to all kinds of ideas and people who may present ideas in nontraditional ways.

For example, she said, the foundation had deep involvement with the Joy Howe School, an alternative form of education for at-risk students. The school later became known as Jefferson Education Center and now is the Richard L. Johnson Early Childhood Center.

Souza briefly worked for the foundation in the early 1990s, when she was on a leave of absence from Cummins.

The foundation was working with Turning Point and trying to determine whether its focus should be on domestic violence or a homeless shelter. Domestic violence was chosen as the mission, but Souza recalled foundation members wanting to know what the impact would be on the community’s homeless population. A study of local homelessness was conducted, and from that Horizon House was created.

“We’ll miss them,” Souza said.

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