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Walter Annenberg Was Good to Us

October 04, 2002

When he died Oct. 1, Ambassador Walter Annenberg left behind one of the greatest fortunes and art collections in the U.S. But more than that, he left a legacy of public philanthropy and public service. Annenberg always had the same reply when people told him that he was the greatest philanthropist in America. He said, "This country's been good to me." And it had been good to him. But his success, in business and in life, did not come easily.

As a young man, Annenberg stuttered. But by an act of iron will he overcame this challenge and learned to speak with direct eloquence. Eventually, he donated enormous resources to communication education and research--because this country had been good to him.

During his lifetime, Annenberg supported hundreds of charities, but there were a few that carried his special signature. One was the United Negro College Fund. The president of the fund, Christopher Edley, approached Annenberg one day in 1990 to ask for $20 million. After hearing the pitch, Annenberg told him he could not comply. Then, Annenberg explained that $20 million was not enough for so important a cause. He said that he intended to contribute $50 million instead.

The biggest challenge, Annenberg concluded, is K-12 education. Some observers might have expected a leading Republican to use his resources to support private schools or vouchers. But not Ambassador Annenberg. Instead, he and his family donated $500 million to improve public school education.

Unlike many philanthropists, the members of the Annenberg family never created a large infrastructure for their philanthropy. They have relied on their own hearts and their own instincts. In the process, Walter, Lee and Wallis Annenberg have built some of the greatest institutions in America, creating a legacy that will endure and that has begun to inspire others who, like Ambassador Annenberg, might say, "This country has been good to me."

Geoffrey Cowan

Dean, Annenberg School

for Communication, USC


During my many years of practice in Palm Springs, Annenberg was a patient of mine. A quiet and humbly pleasant gentleman, he waited without complaint to see me, even when I was running late. He accepted my therapeutic suggestions readily. He had that "gravitas" that physicians are supposed to have, but all too seldom attain. When I retired, he sent me a most gracious note wishing me well. During almost every visit he remarked to me: "I like your style." Walter Annenberg, I liked your style as well.

Charles Steffen MD


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