Thomas A. Saunders III and Jordan Horner Saunders

National Humanities Medal


Philanthropist Thomas A. Saunders III has delivered two speeches in the past year. Though quite different—one was about genetics, the other about the financial crisis—they both ended with Saunders talking about the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima. An important battle of the Pacific theater, it is also a battle in which Mary Jordan Saunders’s father, Maj. General Matthew C. Horner, participated as a corporal with the Fourth Marines. But the reason Tom Saunders keeps returning to Iwo Jima is that he was awestruck by a speech he heard Hershel “Woody” Williams of the Third Marines give in March of 2007 at a dinner honoring recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor.Outlined on a hotel notepad, Williams’s speech about Iwo Jima made a refrain of all that the United States did not know prior to invasion: that it would take 75,000 Marines to gain control of the island; that the Japanese had recourse to miles of underground tunnels and would fight to the last; that the battle would take not days but weeks.

In bullet points Williams’s brief account concludes with things he himself could not have foreseen: “I didn’t know that two Marines would give their lives protecting mine. I didn’t know my life would be changed forever because my commanding officer and four Marines thought I was worthy of the Medal of Honor. I am the caretaker of it.”

After hearing the speech Tom Saunders told Williams he’d found it riveting. Williams gave him the notepad on which it was drafted, a gift Tom cherishes because this modest object and the bare-bones story it tells capture how the Saunderses feel about the sacrifices of earlier generations and what the present owes to the past. “To know who we are,” explains Tom, “we have to know who we were.”

Caretaking is serious business in the Saunders household. In addition to contributing tens of millions of dollars to institutions of culture and higher education, they have donated great quantities of time, leadership, and panache to their adopted causes.

Tom Saunders, a former partner at Morgan Stanley, who among other feats did the underwriting for Margaret Thatcher’s telecom privatization, has given the University of Virginia some $17 million over the past twenty-five years. As a board member, he led the Darden School of Business at UVA to forgo public funding in return for greater autonomy and established matching challenges for the university’s schools of education, nursing, and architecture to help these less-well-funded programs get in the practice of attracting major donations. At the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, he has helped fund the digitization of Jefferson’s retirement papers and called on the nonprofit to use the Internet to export Jefferson’s wisdom all over the world.

Dan Jordan, president emeritus of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, says Tom’s philanthropy “springs largely from patriotism and loyalty.” He is, says Mr. Jordan, “a proud and grateful American.”

Jordan Horner Saunders has been saluted with military revues and an F-16 flyover for her commitments to the Marine Corps University (where the Saunderses have endowed the Matthew C. Horner chair in military theory) and the Virginia Military Institute. Jordan has also been credited with the staging of several major fundraising events. Attendees still recall the 1995 Dinner on the Lawn at UVA, which Tom and Jordan chaired, to kick off a billion-dollar capital campaign: the dramatic sight of elegant white tents on Mister Jefferson’s lawn, the music selected for the event (students singing “Shenandoah,” now used routinely in campus ceremonies), the democratic seating chart, and the great sense of occasion.

In 2007 the Saunders hosted the annual gala for the New-York Historical Society and raised three times as much money as the previously most successful gala. The event took place at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Uptown Manhattan. Beforehand, Tom wondered if they shouldn’t hang a flag over a wall that had been damaged in a fire. Jordan arranged for a thirty-foot by sixty-foot stars and stripes to be draped vertically, and luminously, over the gala as a great visual symbol.

Asked how she and her husband came to be such active champions of American education and history, Jordan says their Southern upbringing instilled in them a reverence for the past, as did their ancestral connections in Virginia, which, in both cases, date back to the seventeenth century. Living in New York City, as the Saunders have since the 1960s, has also provided them with examples of how private individuals can take a stand for the public good. Jordan is an admirer of the privately run Central Park Conservancy, which was founded in 1980 to reverse the moral and physical decay that had taken over the park during the financially strapped seventies. “It became clear to me that if you didn’t participate in preserving something you cared about, it could go away. Can you imagine New York without Central Park?”

It’s a bracing and fitting thought for those in a position to become caretakers, which is to say everyone. As the Saunderses are always quick to emphasize, it is not just with the contents of their wallets that people can contribute to the greater good, but with their energy, their ideas, and their determination.

By David Skinner

About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.