In the wake of Allen's death Monday, much has been made of his philanthropy and wealth on a grand scale. But a small crumb of Allen's $20 billion fortune also reached a tiny preschool in the San Juans.
The envelope was crumpled and dirty when it finally reached Terri Mason. Looked like it had gotten lost or stuck behind a counter in the post office.
When Mason opened it, its condition didn’t matter, nor did how long it took to reach her.
It was a check for $160,000, made out to her, and signed by Paul Allen.
“His signature was at the bottom,” Mason remembered. “And there was a letter that said, ‘We wish you the very best.’ “
In the wake of Allen’s death Monday, much has been made of his philanthropy and wealth on a grand scale. His ownership of The Seattle Seahawks. The Portland Trailblazers and MoPOP. The Allen Institute for Brain Science. His undersea explorations. His push for private space travel through his company, Stratolaunch System.
But a small crumb of Allen’s $20 billion fortune also reached a tiny preschool near where he bought a $9 million, 387-acre property on Lopez Island’s Sperry Peninsula in 1996.
Real-estate agent Wally Gudgell remembered walking the Lopez property with Allen and his team; the 3 miles of shoreline, the old-growth forest of cedar and fir, and the rock platforms with views of Mount Baker. When the talk turned to family, Gudgell mentioned to Allen The Orcas Island Children’s House, a preschool where his sister, Mason, was the executive director.
The school was squeaking out the final touches on an adjacent Infant and Toddler Center that it had built with the help of state and federal grants. Little ones would be cared for while their parents worked, new parents could take classes. There would be resources, and community.
It was a passing mention, Gudgell said the other day. Something to share with Allen about the area where he was about to build a family retreat. Allen didn’t say much. Just took it in.
“I thought (Allen) was kind of a geeky little guy,” Gudgell said. “He was quiet and he had asthma. But you could tell that still waters ran deep.”
One of Allen’s staffers suggested that Mason apply for a grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. So she did, asking for help covering the finishes on the building, furniture, kitchen supplies and toys.
Not long after, the check arrived in Mason’s mailbox. Enough to cover everything — even a celebratory potluck for the staff and the families who made the place what it was.
“I was just shocked,” Gudgell said. “I didn’t expect anything. I guess he wanted to do something for the community. My sister was stunned.”
Of course, it could have also been a peace offering to island residents.
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Allen’s purchase of the Sperry Peninsula displaced Camp Nor’wester, which had been operating on Lopez Island since 1946. The camp board, former campers and islanders first thought Allen was purchasing the land to save the place. When it turned out he was building a personal compound, they fought the sale mightily, going as far as setting up a tepee and inviting Allen to stay, and sending him copies of “Free Willy 2,” which had been filmed there.
It didn’t work. The sale went through anyway, and the camp closed for three years while its board searched for a new site, finally landing on the 132-acre Nell Robinson Ranch on Johns Island. Camp Nor’wester reopened in 2000 and reached full enrollment in 2015.
The Orcas Island Children’s House had island history, as well. Established in 1972 by a woman named Sandra Starr, it was the first preschool on Orcas. In 1976, it moved to its current location, a century-old farmhouse that was once home to the Lavender family, which included seven children.
In the time since Allen’s gift arrived, at least 1,000 children and families have passed through the Children’s House and its Infant and Toddler Center, called the Pea Patch. Not just in summer. All year round.
“Thanks to Paul Allen,” Mason said. A man who, we both realized, never had children of his own.
“I’m crying right now,” Mason said. “And it’s been over 20 years.”
The other night, after learning of Allen’s death, Mason told her daughters about what he had done, of the check that came in the crumpled envelope, and what it had meant to island families.
“Beyond all the big and impressive things he did,” Mason said, “that was something that touched us in our little community.”
Susan Anderson, the current executive director of the school, stressed the opportunities the school provides for early learning, “at ages particularly critical to stimulating development.” Something Allen would have appreciated.
And, perhaps without even knowing, Allen created a legacy in a little school far from the stadium crowds and skyscrapers he built. The Orcas Island Children’s House, Anderson noted, is now teaching the children of those who attended years ago.
“It’s a wonderful cycle,” she said. “His gift is not forgotten.”