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Sunday, June 22, 2003
McCaws downplay their $20 million donation

By Melinda Bargreen
Seattle Times music critic

McCaw family
The McCaw brothers gave $20 million to name the new hall after Marion Oliver McCaw Garrison, center. From left are Bruce, Keith, Craig and John McCaw.
The new opera house will be known as Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, courtesy of a record $20 million gift from the four McCaw brothers to name the hall after their mother, Marion Oliver McCaw Garrison. (Garrison is her current married name.)

But family spokesman Craig McCaw is quick to deflect questions about his views on the new hall: "I think it's presumptuous to assume this hall is personal to us. Some people think they should put their mark on things. But the community is doing this project, and this is our way of supporting that. It's not our hall.

"We're proud it will recognize our mother, but don't want to overstate our level of philanthropy. To single us out is almost embarrassing in a list of (such philanthropists as) Gates, Allen, Benaroya and all the rest. In great communities — and Seattle is a great community — people give back for the right reasons, not for recognition."

Both the top of the curved glass wall and the tops of the metal scrims on the west side have been wired to give any would-be roosting pigeons a small jolt of electricity not enough to harm them, just enough to deter them from perching there, with the inevitable aesthetic consequences.
Nonetheless, McCaw has been keeping an eye on the construction of the hall that bears the family name, though he wants to suspend judgment until everything is completed.

"I'm always nervous when designers are doing a project," he confesses. "You have to wait and see when it's finished. I was a little worried when I saw the color palettes. If it had been purely my choice, I might not have done it that way, but you have to let the people in charge be in charge.

"It will be interesting to see the judgment of time (on McCaw Hall). In its time, the Space Needle was pretty out there, but it has survived that 'Jetsons' look and is timeless now."

The four brothers — Craig, Bruce, John and Keith — together with their wives and families decided to make the $20 million gift to honor their mother's lifelong devotion to the arts, especially to Seattle Opera. Marion Oliver McCaw Garrison's own arts philanthropy extends over a period of more than 30 years, and she has been involved in Seattle Opera since the company's early days.

The family's loss of youngest brother Keith McCaw, who died suddenly last December, has made the idea of the four brothers' joint gift to the hall "more poignant, more important now," Craig McCaw says.

"We're reminded that in life, there is no such thing as a bad day," he says. "Life is so precious. When you leave this earth, you need to leave something good behind."

The McCaw brothers' gift was made possible by the family's cellular-phone empire, built by Craig McCaw. Their company, McCaw Cellular Communications, was bought out by AT&T in September 1994 for $11.5 billion. This family fortune arose from the ashes of patriarch Elroy McCaw's substantial holdings in radio and television stations; his estate was declared bankrupt after claims and lawsuits from creditors piled up after his 1969 death.

Craig McCaw and his brothers invested in cellular companies, pledging their assets as collateral, and saw their investments grow in value by as much as 9,800 percent. Craig McCaw is currently ranked by Forbes magazine as the world's 147th-wealthiest person, with a net worth of $2.5 billion.

None of the brothers is fond of the spotlight, but Craig gives a gracious interview. His words make it clear that whether it's a run at the America's Cup (he backed a contending yacht with Paul Allen) or a boost to Seattle-area culture, he has thought things through pretty carefully.

"In our age of computing and communications," he says, "cities are about social and cultural factors, and our ability to be together. The arts bring that about.

"People can choose to live wherever they want to. It's the city's quality of life that drives those decisions. Here in Seattle, a tremendous number of people have come together to make this hall happen, to contribute to the quality of life for us all. I hope the combined efforts of many will bring joy to generations to come."


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