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Philanthropist Betty Schoenbaum of Shoney’s fortune turns 100


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Betty Schoenbaum is having a birthday party.

And not a small one, either.

“I’m having 250 people for lunch at Michael’s on East,” she said.

She is not bragging about the Oct. 7 event at a posh restaurant in Sarasota, Florida.

Betty Schoenbaum holds a picture of her late husband, Alex, and herself at her former Charleston home in 2012.
(Gazette-Mail file photo)

She could brag, if she wanted, given a lifetime of philanthropic endeavors a mile long and many, many millions of dollars deep, which has benefited institutions and individuals from West Virginia to Israel.

But no, it’s just that Schoenbaum is rather well known and esteemed.

Plus, it’s a notable birthday. She is turning 100 years old this week and ­— judging by a boisterous telephone interview from her Sarasota home — still has energy to spare and opinions to share.

The actual date of her birthday is Tuesday. But Sarasota is jammed with visitors this week as part of an international rowing event for seniors.

“My daughter didn’t know that, and she called up the hotels and there wasn’t a hotel room in town,” Schoenbaum said.

That discovery prompted them to reschedule the lunch to mark her transition into three digits of living and of giving.

The luncheon will certainly be an event in a city where one newspaper article dubbed her a “rainmaker” and “the grande dame of Sarasota philanthropy.”

But the same phrases could be used to describe her impact in West Virginia’s capital city, as Charleston can count everything from the Haddad Riverfront Park stage, 30 years of Charleston Light Opera Guild summer productions and the Schoenbaum Center on the West Side to hundreds of other grants and gifts from Schoenbaum and her late husband, Alex.

The root engine of all that philanthropy was the restaurant chain that would come to be known as Shoney’s.

It began with the Parkette Drive-in and Bowling Alley on Charleston’s West Side in 1947. (There is a pillar and memorial to the site across from the Patrick Street Plaza on Kanawha Boulevard.)

Four years later, Alex purchased the Big Boy hamburger chain franchise rights for the southeastern states. As the chain prospered, it was christened Shoney’s when Alex’s nickname was chosen as the company name in an employee contest, according to his profile in the West Virginia Encyclopedia.

At its peak, the Shoney’s chain featured nearly 2,000 restaurants across 36 states and has been credited with popularizing the notion of the family restaurant. The chain featured the iconic Big Boy burger, promoted by a tousle-haired statue of a robust boy in red-checked suspenders, hoisting a burger on a plate.

“I tell people I’m the big girl with the Big Boy,” Betty said of the romance that set the wheels of the couple’s philanthropy in motion.

She met Alex during a freshman mixer on the first day of college. Alex, who would go on to become an All-American tackle at Ohio State University, got a degree in business education, and Betty earned her degree in commerce in 1939. The couple later settled in Charleston.

Philanthropy and fundraising was not something that waited for Alex to create a fortune, she said.

“He was always raising money for the fraternity house,” she said. “He just did a lot of volunteer work. My husband always was raising money for the underprivileged, the undereducated and for causes ever since I met him.”

As income poured in from the thriving chain, the couple redirected a steady stream of it back outward in the form of donations. Alex would often give donations in Betty’s name or stand back as she picked new causes.

“No matter how much I wanted to give, my husband never stopped me from giving,” she said.

Alex died in 1996, and Betty inherited the estate. She and her husband had been generous donors, but after his death, she picked up her pace.

“My real giving didn’t start until my husband passed away,” she said. “I was 79 at the time.”

Just a sampling of Schoenbaum family donations with a direct effect on Charleston will indicate the broad impact on civic and community life in the area:

— The Schoenbaum Family Foundation has donated widely to groups, ranging from Kanawha Hospice Care, the Kanawha Valley Fellowship Home, Keep a Child in School and Manna Meal, to Mountaineer Food Bank, Mountaineer Habitat for Humanity and the Nature Conservancy of West Virginia.

— The purchase of sports and recreation equipment for more than 200 public schools in the Charleston area.

— Funding for the Schoenbaum stage and lighting to Haddad Riverfront Park in Charleston, when money was lacking to add to the riverfront development.

— Major contributors to the YMCA gymnasium in Charleston.

— Creation of the Schoenbaum Family Enrichment Center, a human services center in Charleston to house nonprofit social services agencies.

— Funding for the gazebo in Davis Park in Charleston.

— Full endowment of a first violinist chair for the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra.

— Funding for a 2½ story library at the University of Charleston.

— Funding to Charleston Light Opera Guild for two summer productions annually for more than 30 years.

— Funding for a 2,000-seat soccer arena and amphitheater for Coonskin Park.

—  Donations have also been directed across the country, including the Schoenbaum Family Center, an early childhood education research lab at Ohio State, a favorite recipient of its two long-ago alumni.

The Schoenbaums have also been international philanthropists, including development of the Schoenbaum Science, Educational, Cultural & Sports Campus for Ethiopian Jews in Kiryat Yam, Israel.

Betty is an evangelist for the benefits that come from giving not only to those who receive the gift, but to those who give it.

“What you put in, you get so much more out of it,” she said. “You get the joy of living out of it. When you share and you give, you get such joy out of it. It’s unbelievable.”

She is also a proponent for not only donating money, but also time.

“I used to help senior centers a lot. I’d speak to people nobody ever comes to visit. I’d make it my business to go there one day a week and sit and talk to them,” she said.

Betty is also something of a hugging specialist, taking several minutes of a phone interview to detail proper hugging technique.

“I’m known for my hugs,” she said.

A proper hug, she said, is heart to heart, eyes closed, arms enfolding one another.

Each of you then drops your arms to the sides of your body, eyes still closed, she said.

A reader might note that the next part of her hugging discourse has authority behind it, since, after all, it seems to have worked for her own longevity.

“You stand there a couple of minutes, and you will feel your fingers tingling,” she said. “You have raised your endorphins and hopefully your autoimmune system. Raising your endorphins helps you to live longer.”

Her hugs are in such demand at luncheons that there is sometimes a line, and it has happened that a server has made off with her lunch, thinking she was finished eating.

“When I sit down to eat my lunch, it’s gone,” Betty said.

While wealth came from the success of the Shoney’s chain, it has been the philanthropy it made possible that has especially enriched her century-long life, Betty said.

“I have had one of the most glorious lives a woman can lead,” she said.

Giving also sets an example, she added.

“When you give money and your children see how you help other people, they grow up and they want to help other people,” she said.

She uses a walker to get around these days, but Betty is as busy as her days allow her to be. She is a proponent of the healthful aspects of donating money and time to those who could benefit from it.

“You stay healthier, and you have the privilege to get up in the morning and help other people,” she said.

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at [email protected], 304-348-3017 or follow @douglaseye on Twitter.

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