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Benefactor's final gift shakes a foundation

October 30, 2006|Valerie Reitman | Times Staff Writer

The late philanthropist Joan Palevsky lived in a modest two-bedroom house in Westwood, tooled around in an aging beige Toyota Corolla and dressed in drab blazers, button-down shirts and slacks. When she did indulge herself, it was likely to be on chocolates from See's.

Over the years, Palevsky gave regularly and generously to a broad spectrum of causes important to her -- including UCLA, the Rape Foundation, TreePeople and Amnesty International -- but also to those dear to her friends, such as her housekeeper's South Los Angeles church or for research on Parkinson's disease, which affected her late accountant. She also helped those she barely knew, such as the grocery clerk who couldn't afford college textbooks.

But not even her daughter suspected the extent of Palevsky's wealth -- built from savvy investments after a long-ago divorce settlement -- or which organization would get most of it after her death in late March at age 80. Or how a newspaper article about the group nearly a dec-ade earlier would spur the windfall.

Today, her gift of $200 million will be publicly revealed by its astonished recipient: the California Community Foundation, which supports a variety of civic and social causes by pooling several funds into one organization to maximize efficiencies.

Foundation President Antonia Hernandez said Sunday that she screamed when she first got news of Palevsky's gift by cellphone while outside church. "People must have thought, this lady's gone crazy," she said.

"It's a wonderful blessing, manna from heaven," Hernandez said. "All the issues she cared deeply about fit so well with our future strategy. It was absolute synergy."

It's among the largest bequests to a U.S. public charity, said Jim Ferris, director of USC's Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy. Most wealthy donors create their own private family foundations. Moreover, Palevsky left the decision on how to use the money up to the California Community Foundation, rather than specifying a particular purpose as is typical.

The foundation says it will create an endowment to support the causes Palevsky championed: civil liberties and civic participation, arts and culture, public education and empowering the disadvantaged, such as the working poor, seniors and the homeless.

Palevsky's gift comes at a time when charitable bequests have fallen nationally -- declining an estimated 5.5% in 2005, to $17.44 billion, according to Giving USA Foundation in Glenview, Ill. (Among the reasons: Fewer Americans are dying each year.)

Palevsky's contribution will boost the California Community Foundation's assets to more than $1 billion. Started in 1915, the foundation last year gave about $94 million to diverse groups, including those tackling neighborhood rehabilitation, literacy efforts and animal neutering.

But it was one particular effort that caught Palevsky's attention in 1997 when she read about it in The Times, recalled David D. Watts, then her estate planner. The foundation had created a fund to address chronic textbook shortages in Los Angeles-area public schools, giving $200,000 and raising thousands more to purchase texts while also helping negotiate better prices and inventory controls.

The public-private partnership impressed Palevsky, and she donated $2,200, her single contribution to the foundation while alive.

She was revising her will at the time to give more to charity.

She left generous amounts for family and friends, and specific bequests of $10,000 to $250,000 to numerous charities. UCLA would receive $4.7 million for endowed professorships in classics and French, among other things.

And whatever was left would go to nonprofit California Community Foundation.

Over the years, her stock portfolio soared, thanks to shrewd investments, Watts said. She probably started with about $40 million, Watts estimates, after her 1968 divorce from Max Palevsky, who co-founded Scientific Data Systems and sold it to Xerox for nearly $1 billion in 1969.

Madeleine Moskowitz said her mother wasn't comfortable with her newfound wealth and probably felt burdened by it.

Born in Omaha in 1926 and raised by a single mother during the Depression, Palevsky moved to L.A. at age 10. Her mother worked as an office manager at a Culver City dairy to support her and her sister. They lived with Palevsky's aunts and uncles in one side of a duplex at 16th Place near Venice and Crenshaw boulevards. After graduating from Los Angeles High School, Palevsky -- the first in her family to graduate from college -- honed her love of languages, classics and history at UCLA.

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