A Cheerful Giver: Remembering Jocelyn Rudner
This past week, Jocelyn Rudner died at the age of 94. When people live into their 90’s, there are often fewer people at the funeral because all of their friends have already passed. Plus, I think people feel that since the person has clearly lived a good, long life, and the need to go to the funeral is lessened. But in the case of Jocelyn Rudner, I would have canceled almost anything to make sure I was there.
Jocelyn was Abe Plough’s daughter. Abe Plough was a pharmaceutical entrepreneur who marketed St. Joseph’s aspirin and in doing so made a fortune. During his lifetime, he became known in Memphis as “Mr. Anonymous”- he was very generous with his money but insisted on giving anonymously. But everyone knew it was him. At his death, he left his fortune in a foundation, and Jocelyn was charged to oversee it.
When I first moved to Memphis, only one of the ten largest foundations in Tennessee was based in Memphis, The Plough Foundation. The reason for this is not at first obvious. Many large foundations in America were created from fortunes generated during the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt all made money during this time and at their death created foundations.
But at the turn of the century, Memphis was recovering from the Yellow Fever epidemics of the 1870’s. Yellow Fever decimated large swaths of the Mid-South population, and no one made large amounts of money that could be channeled into foundations until Abe Plough.
At her father’s death, Jocelyn was charged with distributing the money in a way that could do the most good. She accomplished that task and was willing to step outside normal channels to do it.
You know my story – when I first came to Memphis in 1986, I didn’t know a soul. All I knew was that I was going to start a clinic for the working poor called the Church Health Center and that our logo would have a cross in it. I did not actually think very much about the fact that I was approaching a Jewish family foundation to provide the first major source of funding needed to open our doors.
Jocelyn was intrigued with the plan I put before her and the Plough Foundation board. She was willing to take a chance on me, and I have never forgotten it. We had a $300,000 budget that first year. The Plough Foundation gave 1/3 of that. It was enough for me to feel confident that we could open our doors.
And we did.
Jocelyn was the president of the Foundation for 10 years, until she stepped down in 1995. I truly have no idea how many others she took a risk on, but I know I am not alone. She committed herself to do as much good as she could with the resources her father left. She continued his charge to remain anonymous, so much so that few people outside of the philanthropic and not-for-profit community know all that she did.
I have never forgotten and never will. She led the way for Memphis to develop a strong Foundation community. She did it in her quiet, unassuming way. She understood that the Lord loves a cheerful giver.
At her funeral, she instructed Rabbi Micah Greenstein to not offer a eulogy. Instead, she wanted music to speak the message of love and kindness that she lived. She was always quiet in her approach to giving, except that her charity was so very loud in the volume of kindness she accomplished.
Thank you, Jocelyn, for being willing to take a chance on me and Church Health.