A prodigal investment

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Saturday, April 01, 2006

s_RobinLorry Lokey showed up for his first day at Alameda Elementary School in Portland like most first-graders: a little lump of clay, hands in pockets, ready to be molded.

The teachers embraced young Lorry and molded him indeed. They had such a profound and lasting effect on Lokey that 70 years after they taught him reading, writing, thinking, respect, he still can recite their names: Miss Moss, Miss Young, Miss Rogers, Miss Wilson, Miss Winkleman. “It was such a complete education,” Lokey remembers. “The quality and the care these women gave us, the concern for our futures, set me on my course. They hammered into us that what went on there would set us for the future.”

Even among this field of champions, Miss Hancock, the librarian, was special to Lokey. She taught him to love reading, which broadened his ideas about what life could be for a young boy growing up in Depression-era Portland. Lokey went on to graduate from Grant High School, and then Stanford University, and eventually founded Business Wire, a corporate news distributor based in San Francisco valued at around $600 million that was just bought by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. To say a local boy did good is what Miss Hancock surely would have labeled an understatement (if not bad grammar). 

Though far from home, Lokey never forgot the priceless education Alameda gave him.

Two years ago, Lokey gave $450,000 to help rebuild Alameda’s library in honor of Miss Hancock. He estimates he’s given about $170 million to public and private schools, including the University of Oregon, where just a few weeks ago he pledged $10 million to the College of Education, along with a $2.5 million challenge gift. A few days later, he increased his gift to its School of Music and Dance to $5 million. All that in addition to the $4.5 million he gave the university last year for its School of Journalism’s new Portland program. He gives the teachers of Alameda the full credit for his success. “I would not have made it without those teachers,” he figures.

So it pains Lokey, as it pains many, to see funding for Oregon’s schools falter, along with the quality of education he remembers. “I wish more people would realize what their elementary school meant to them,” Lokey says. “Most of us tend to focus on our college as the thing that made us. Yes, Stanford was important. It determined what I would do in life. But Alameda determined what I would be in life. Cutting education funding is a national disease. There are some things in life that when you cut, you’re going to pay more for later on.” To Lokey’s way of thinking, everything else can -— and should — be cut. But never education.

Alameda has a fairy godfather as long as Lokey has something to say about it. He lives in the Bay Area and doesn’t get back to Portland often, but keeps an eye on his old school, vowing, “If they need anything the district won’t provide, I’ll do it.” At 79, and with a few extra dollars courtesy of Mr. Buffett, he says he’ll focus on his education philanthropy. 

Few can single-handedly close a funding gap the way Lokey can. But as school, community and business leaders across the state, particularly in Portland, grapple with shortfalls and what that means to society’s bottom line, Lokey’s story is an irresistible parable: Take care of the children first and always. You never know when one of them will blossom from that care and return home with a library in his pocket.

— Robin Doussard, editor
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