In Lee and Joan Thomas’ philanthropy, five-star giving without the five-star perks

By Jim Hopkins
Boulevard Publisher

A lot of big philanthropy comes with nice extras: private lunches hosted by ballet company directors; season tickets to the opera with box seats, and trusteeships that offer peerless networking with other A-listers. There’s nothing wrong with that; if you gotta keep the lights on and pay the heating bill, it sometimes takes a carrot or two to attract donors who wear a carat or three.


But there are plenty of other worthwhile charities that don’t offer the same social cachet — which leads me to Louisville’s Center for Women and Families, and the late Lee Thomas Jr., the retired businessman and philanthropist who died Tuesday at 90.

The center provides crucial support to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. It runs a crisis hotline; two emergency shelters, and gives psychological and academic help for kids swept up in all that horror. I have Thomas and his wife Joan in mind because they gave the center $2.6 million last year, the bulk of the nearly $4 million their charitable foundation donated to 32 charities. That’s according to the Joan and Lee Thomas Foundation’s public annual IRS tax return for the year ended June 30, 2015; I leafed through it this morning.

To be sure, other generous Louisvillians give to the center, too. But what’s striking about the Thomas’ giving is the sheer concentration on charities that offer few of the five-star social extras. (KET tote bags don’t count.) This was workaday philanthropy to the Home of the Innocents, the Urban League, Planned Parenthood and other important but hardly glamorous causes; here’s a spreadsheet with all their 2015 donations.

The couple’s humility extended to their foundation’s official name, too, which barely identifies them: It’s simply called the J & L Foundation on charity tracker GuideStar.

Much more to come

Their contributions will no doubt continue; the foundation has a $19.5 million portfolio, enough to throw off nearly $1 million in annual contributions well into the future. Last year’s donations brought to $6.3 million the total given in 2013-2015 alone. It ranks in the top tier of Louisville’s biggest foundations and other non-profits based on asset size.

Vermont American logoThe Thomas’ focus on plain philanthropy is hardly surprising, because it reflects their Quaker faith; several of their other donations last year were to charities associated with the Friends General Conference.

Lee and Joan met at a Quaker work camp in 1948, The Courier-Journal says in his obituary. After marrying and moving to Louisville, in 1954 he started building up the former American Saw and Tool Co. — later called Vermont American Corp. — from a single-product supplier to Sears Roebuck & Co. into an international public corporation employing 5,000 people. It’s now a brand in the Robert Bosch Tool Co.

The Thomas’ were instrumental in establishing the ACLU’s Kentucky chapter in 1955, when local civil rights activists were defending a couple, Carl and Anne Braden, accused of being treacherous union sympathizers who fought racial segregation in housing. Lee Thomas also marched with the Rev. Martha Luther King Jr. in the city.

The ACLU mourned his death. “He put up the seed money to get our affiliate off the ground and continued to support our work for the next 61 years,” the chapter said on its Facebook page. “He was a giant for peace, justice, and equality for all. He will be missed, but his example will continue to inspire.”

Disclosure: I’m a card-carrying ACLU member and Planned Parenthood supporter.

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