Sisters share parents' gift for giving
Winslow and Irene Van Brunt taught their children to value people.
Posted: Mon, Dec 3, 2012
A seedy-looking man sat down next to her dad on a bench – maybe the seediest-looking man you'd ever see.
His hair fell halfway down his back. His clothes were scroungy. He smelled like he hadn't bathed in a while.
Other people might have left the bench, which was in a mall. But not her dad. When it was time to go, he stuck out his hand and said, "Well, it's been nice visiting with you, young man. Good luck to you."
Alice Williamson told this story one day this past spring as she tried to explain her philosophy of philanthropy. She sat on a chair in her high-end Omaha condo, surrounded by family pictures, rare antiques and other treasures gathered over her long, happy life.
She was frail and feisty.
She took no credit herself for all of her gifts to the University of Nebraska over the years. She gave all the credit to her parents, Winslow and Irene Van Brunt, who taught her and her sister to value people.
To value education.
To be warm and welcoming.
"I gave maybe $25 a year to the university at first. I started out young, after graduating (from UNL), and I suppose that was from Mother and Daddy's example, too."
She and her sister, Beth Weigel, later were able to give money to build the Weigel Williamson Center for Low Vision at UNMC and – in memory of their gracious parents – they built UNL's Van Brunt Visitors Center.
Alice insisted the low-vision center feel warm, like a home.
"Anything dealing with the eyes has to be warm," she said that day at her condo, "because it's a terrible thing to lose your vision."
She insisted the Van Brunt Visitors Center welcome all people, be like the "front door to the campus," like the front door of the Van Brunt home when she was growing up.
"I want people to feel wanted, like they can go in and not feel, ‘Well I'm out of place.' I want it to be for anybody, like Daddy's little man, sitting on that bench.'"
And she said her parents taught her to leave this world better than you found it.
Alice Williamson died Nov. 6. She was 83.
In the following story, which appears in the foundation's 2012 Portraits of Philanthropy book, she talks about the philanthropy of her and her sister, Beth Weigel:
Beth and I grew up in a family that was very philanthropic. Our grandfather and grandmother and our mother and father – Irene and Winslow Van Brunt – gave to many causes.
When we went to look for something to do, we decided to support the University of Nebraska. After talking to the chancellor and the foundation's Terry Fairfield, we found out that UNL was considering doing a visitor's center. We decided on the Van Brunt Visitors Center.
Mother would have loved the center. She was so outgoing and gracious. She would have been standing at its front door, greeting everybody who came in.
Daddy was a wonderful, outgoing person, too. He had a great interest in people and was very generous. But we're not sure he would have liked having their name on the building – he would not have liked the attention.
They both loved their years at UNL. They both loved Cornhusker football. We started out loving football. From the time we were 2 and 3 years old, Daddy would take us to games. We'd sit on his knees. Mother and Daddy both were active in the Nebraska Alumni Association and their activities. Daddy served as head of the alumni association. He was working on the Alumni Center when he died.
They gave a lot of themselves in every way – to UNL and to many other causes. Mom was national president of the P.E.O. Daddy was very active in the Scottish Rite and Goodwill. But his favorite hobby was helping the Special Olympics.
Because of Daddy, we always give to the Special Olympics. We think you should try to give while you're still alive. You just give where your heart is, and our hearts are with our wonderful parents.
Our hearts also go out to people who have problems with their vision. People in our family have had eye problems. Mother had macular degeneration. It was so frustrating to her. We know her last days would have been so much happier if she had been able to see well enough to read. So the Weigel Williamson Center for Low Vision at UNMC also was a good fit for our philanthropy. It is warm and welcoming, like a real home.
One time, a woman called me and told me about a friend who had gone through rehab at the low-vision center. "Alice, this woman is a different person now. She says, ‘I now have hope.'"
Bob, my husband, suffered a stroke a few years back. It affected his vision. One day, he was on the elevator at UNMC. A man turned to him and said, "You're Mr. Williamson, aren't you? You don't know me. My daughter has vision problems. She's 2 years old. She's been to the low-vision center and they were able to help her. I just wanted to say thank you. That place means a lot to us.'"
We're sure it would have meant a lot to Mother and Daddy, too.
A named gift at the University of Nebraska is a great way to create a lasting memorial to honor your parents or another family member. Call the foundation at 800-432-3216 to learn more.