Jacksonville Native Cancels $38 Million to Smithsonian Letter Retracting Gift Cites Philosophical Differences

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Byline: Jessie-Lynne Kerr, Times-Union staff writer

Jacksonville native Catherine B. Reynolds took back her $38 million gift to the Smithsonian Institution this week, saying she got fed up with the bureaucracy running the venerable collection of museums in Washington called by many "the attic of the nation."

Reynolds, who made her fortune servicing privately funded college loans, last May announced that her Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation was giving the money to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History for a "Spirit of America" exhibit that would celebrate great American achievers.

Some Smithsonian curators were dismayed when Reynolds indicated that Nobel laureates and Medal of Honor winners as well as people such as Oprah Winfrey, newsman Sam Donaldson, Martha Stewart, skater Dorothy Hamill and civic rights activist Coretta Scott King would be included. The curators attacked the planned emphasis on individuals rather than focusing on demographic groups.

Reynolds was not available to speak with the Times-Union yesterday. Douglas Dolton, the foundation's executive director, referred all queries to the letter Reynolds sent Monday to Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small.

"Never in our wildest dreams did we anticipate that the notion of inspiring young people by telling the stories of prominent Americans from all disciplines would be so controversial," Reynolds wrote. "Apparently, the basic philosophy for the exhibit -- the power of an individual to make a difference -- is the antithesis of that espoused by many within the Smithsonian bureaucracy, which is [that] only movements and institutions make a difference, not individuals. After much contemplation, I see no way to reconcile these diametrically opposed philosophical viewpoints.

"Unfortunately and painfully, this gift to our nation has become impossible to give. …