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PHILANTHROPIST KEEPS ON GIVING

Christa R. Caldwell might be busier now than she was when she directed the Lockport Public Library from 1981 to 1996.

The 70-year-old is a board member of two major charitable foundations in Niagara County, the Grigg-Lewis Foundation and the Niagara Area Foundation. The first is long established; the second is new, and still raising money.

Caldwell has been active in civic affairs, serving on the city's Architectural Heritage Committee, its Master Plan Development Committee and the Canal Development Task Force.

She's won many an award over the years, and Friday she was named Leader of the Year by Leadership Niagara in a reception at the Niagara Falls Conference Center.

Recently, Caldwell sat down to discuss her activities and philanthropy in Lockport:

So you're Leader of the Year. Where does this rank with the other awards you've won?

I don't rank them. People have been very kind. Different groups have different criteria, but it's very nice to still be considered in that category.

Has service been an important theme in your life?

I think so. I think I was brought up to do it. I don't remember starting to do it. I think I was always brought up with the idea that you're supposed to help other people, and I was fortunate that my job was that kind of job. It was a helping kind of profession.

They built the new section of the library while you were still there, right?

That's my baby. I'm really pleased, and one of the things that's really nice is that Peg Lynch, who is my successor, is very gracious in including me in discussing things, which is just a gift to me. It's nice to be consulted. I know they've been able to do major expansions of computers without having to do major (construction). It's not an easy building to do anything with. We did put in big conduits, but you can only predict so far. Technology's changing so fast.

Have you been more active in philanthropy since you retired from the library?

Yes, I stopped raising money and started spending it (laughs) . . . although the Niagara Area Foundation is still in the stage of raising money. What we started to do, because we wanted to spend -- it's much more fun to spend than anything else -- we established a small fund that we call the Founders' Fund, where people could sign up and pay $400 a year for three years.

Then when we got to the end of our first three-year cycle, everyone who had money in the pot got together. We sent out letters to all the not-for-profits in Niagara County, which is an appallingly long list, and we asked them to send us a request that was under $500. We got a lot of responses, between 30 and 40. So we voted on them, and we funded 20 of them, which made us feel very good and took care of a small need for 20 organizations.

Governments and not-for-profits are always panting after grants, and Grigg-Lewis is one of the places they go. And Grigg-Lewis does big-ticket items. Is there a limit to how much they can give out in a year?

There's a bottom -- you've got to give so much. There's not a top, but there's a bottom, and that's by state law. You've got to give a sum that's approximately 5 percent of your assets, total for the year. Otherwise the tax penalty's as much as you should have spent.

There are foundations where the intention is to spend it down to the last dollar and go out of business, but this is not one of them.

How big is their endowment?

Well, Mrs. (Henrietta) Lewis died recently and her estate was finally settled. It's around $40 million.

How does one get on these philanthropic boards?

Mrs. Lewis started this when she was still very active. She was actively involved in it through most of the years. She had Norm Sinclair (former president of Lockport Savings Bank) with her as sort of a financial adviser, and (attorney) Ben May as a legal adviser. For a long time it was the three of them. When Mrs. Lewis got to the age when she knew she just wasn't being as aware of what was happening in the community, they asked me to come on. Since then we've added Dan Wilson and Tom Weeks, all people who have had a long experience in Lockport.

Who was Grigg?

Her parents and grandparents. Her grandfather and her two uncles came here from England in the latter part of the 1800s. They were in the flour-milling business. They were involved in the Thompson Mill that was near Old City Hall, in that area, and also in Niagara Falls. That was where the family money was made. And they were also very good investors. They did not lose their money in the Depression.

Do you think Lockport is more fortunate than most communities in that it has this philanthropic tradition with its wealthier residents, not only Mrs. Lewis but Kenan, Outwater and others?

Yes, I think for a community our size, we have been very fortunate. Sometimes when we look at countywide projects, we look and say, 'Well, who is there anymore to do this?' Sometimes there are other groups, but they have a more narrow focus. Sometimes we do feel like we're the only ones out there.

My favorite fund no one knows about is a lady who must have died in the early part of the 1900s. Her name was Sarah Lamb Cushing and she was a doctor, one of the very early woman doctors. She was married and her husband died and her child died. She was a doctor here in Lockport for a long time. She left all her money to be used for the medical expenses of indigent women and children, and I believe the hospital (Lockport Memorial) administers it.

Do you think Lockport is more or less charitable than the average community of its size?

It seems to me that people are very generous and a lot of the people who are generous are people that you don't know them well enough to know their financial status, but you don't think of them as being able to afford it. We have a lot of people who don't have the incomes to be thought of as philanthropists who are nice, quiet, steady givers, which is wonderful.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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