Freedoms Foundation President and CEO David Harmer delivered these remarks at the July 18 banquet honoring the 2019 recipients of the 42nd Annual Leavey Awards for Excellence in Private Enterprise Education.
Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge cultivates commitment to the spirit and philosophy of the founding documents of the United States. We educate about American history and values. We honor acts of civic virtue. And we challenge all not only to exercise the rights of citizenship, but to shoulder the corresponding responsibilities.
What does that have to do with free-enterprise education? Everything! Perhaps I can illustrate with the story of one entrepreneur.
On this hot, steamy, southeastern Pennsylvania evening, imagine crossing the continent to the northern California coast, to the towering redwood forests of Humboldt County, cooled by ocean breezes from the Pacific. Now imagine turning the clock back 122 years, to 1897, as Irish immigrants Michael and Rose Leavey welcome the birth of their third son, Thomas. Sadly, Rose passes away only weeks after Thomas is born.
So Thomas Leavey is raised by his father. He grows up working on the family dairy farm, attending a one-room school. In high school he becomes a football star and president of his senior class. Perceiving his potential, his family encourages him to attend college. He enrolls at Santa Clara University, with much-needed funds from his father and older brothers.
In the closing months of World War I, Thomas serves as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, then enrolls in Georgetown University’s School of Law. Upon his graduation in 1923, the yearbook says: “His personality is magnetic, his character as sturdy as the famous redwoods of his native State … In the study of law, as in all other undertakings, he has applied himself with keen intellect and arduous determination.”
Those qualities of character remain evident as Thomas returns to California. In 1928, in a one-room office in Los Angeles, he and a partner found Farmers Insurance just a year before the onset of the Great Depression. Farmers not only survives but thrives, becoming a household name.
In 1930, Thomas marries Dorothy Risley, a graduate of the Convent of the Sacred Heart boarding school and the University of Montana. “When I met him,” Dorothy later recalls, “he was everything I admired, we got along beautifully, and that was it. When I married … I didn’t care about anything else but that tall, six-foot-three-and-a-half man.” In the ensuing years, two daughters join their family.
In 1952, Thomas and Dorothy establish the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Foundation as the primary vehicle for their charitable giving. Dorothy later says: “Well, very simply, if you have some available help [to give], there’s no use in you not giving to someone who needs it. But it’s been easy for me to help somebody else. I come from a very generous family in the first place. Whenever they have an opportunity to help someone, they have done that.”
After Thomas’s death in 1980, Dorothy continues their philanthropic endeavors, remaining actively engaged until her passing in 1998, at age 101, when leadership passes to her daughter Kathleen Leavey McCarthy. The Leavey Foundation has given away some $250 million to organizations including:
One more beneficiary merits mention: Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge. More precisely, Freedoms Foundation is the conduit through which the Leavey family has blessed the real beneficiaries: hundreds of teachers and countless thousands of students.
In 1977, through their Foundation, Thomas and Dorothy established the Leavey Awards for Excellence in Private Enterprise Education. Administered by Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, the Leavey Awards honor teachers at all levels—elementary, middle, high school, and college—who inspire their students to understand, appreciate, and experience the benefits of entrepreneurship and the free enterprise system. Nominations are evaluated and recipients selected by an independent jury of academic and business leaders. Over the past 42 years, 600 teachers have received over $4 million via the Leavey Awards, and those teachers in turn have inspired generations of students.
In 2018, Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge began offering college-accredited, graduate-level, entrepreneurship-education programs for teachers, with the Leavey Summit and the presentation of the Leavey Awards as integral components. Teachers from around the country and overseas participated in last summer’s Entrepreneurs and American History and this year’s Innovative Entrepreneurs, Dynamic Economy.
In 2019, the Leavey Awards were further enhanced with the inaugural issue of Teaching Enterprise: Journal of the Leavey Awards for Excellence in Private Enterprise Education. Building on the momentum of our summer courses, Teaching Enterprise enables Leavey Award winners to publicize their work, detailing the path from initial conception through successful implementation to long-term, community-wide impact.
Plans to further enhance the visibility and influence of the Leavey Awards are underway. At the root of those plans is the answer to this question: When did the Leaveys begin serving others?
Another question: What was the source of the wealth the Leaveys shared?
In Knowledge and Power: The Information Theory of Capitalism, George Gilder writes:
The belief that wealth subsists not in ideas, attitudes, moral codes, and mental disciplines, but in identifiable and static things that can be seized and redistributed, is the materialist superstition. It stultified the works of Marx and other prophets of violence and envy. It frustrates every socialist revolutionary who imagines that by seizing the so-called means of production he can capture the crucial capital of an economy …
The means of entrepreneurs’ production are not land, labor, or capital, but minds and hearts.
Only the contributions of mind, will, and morality are enduring. The most important question for the future of America is how we treat our entrepreneurs … [If they] are respected and allowed to risk their wealth—and new rebels are allowed to rise up and challenge them—America will continue to be the land where the last regularly become the first by serving others.
That is the spirit of enterprise. It’s the American spirit, and Freedoms Foundation is proud to support it.