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Ralph Wilson put trust in trustees to disburse foundation’s $1.2 billion

Ralph C. Wilson Jr. generally knew how he wanted confidants to spend roughly $1 billion from the sale of his Buffalo Bills after his death. He wanted the bulk of it directed to successful, non-profit causes that improve people’s quality of life, mostly in Buffalo and Detroit.

But he intentionally provided no specific guidelines for that spending.

Why not?

Because he knew that times and needs change. And because he had confidence in the four people he chose as trustees for his foundation, all longtime confidants. He was sure they would be guided by his own philanthropic efforts during his lifetime, according to his widow, Mary M. Wilson.

“Ralph was a great visionary,” Mary Wilson said. “He knew things changed, so he didn’t want to put us in a box. He believed in us, which is such a great honor for the four of us. He knew that we knew him, that we loved him and we knew what he had (supported) in the past.”

A total of $1.2 billion from the sale of the Bills, plus the investment income, will be distributed in his name over the next 20 years to colleges, hospitals, medical research, recreational programs, caregivers, former players’ foundations, national clinics and other non-profit causes, primarily in Buffalo and Detroit.

During a wide-ranging interview dealing mostly with the foundation, Mary Wilson also said she’s thrilled about the team’s new ownership under Terry and Kim Pegula; she can’t wait to see the new hand-shaking, life-sized statue of her late husband at the stadium bearing his name; she loves “The Ralph” nickname for the current facility; and she wouldn’t mind jumping out of a plane, but not necessarily with Rex Ryan.

Mary Wilson also doesn’t expect the foundation to help fund any potential new stadium for the Bills. It’s just not consistent with the foundation’s mission statement.

Here are some of Mary Wilson’s observations in a half-hour phone interview:

On her husband’s intentions for the foundation:

People are “blown away,” she said, by the fact that Ralph Wilson provided no specific guidelines for the massive spending to be done in his name.

He wanted those decisions made by the four trustees: Mary Wilson; Mary M. Owen, the owner’s niece and a former team executive; Jeffrey C. Littmann, former Bills treasurer and chief financial officer; and Eugene Driker, a Detroit-based attorney and longtime Wilson associate.

The trustees, who currently are seeking a new president for the foundation, will be guided by the group’s mission statement and by Ralph Wilson’s “consistent giving” pattern during his lifetime.

“So that certainly will guide us,” Mary Wilson said. “Going forward, it will be a team effort.”

The mission statement says, in part, “The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation will operate as a grant-making organization dedicated primarily to sustained investment in the quality of life of the people of Western New York and Southeastern Michigan.”

Mary Wilson, though, admitted that the effort has been “a large learning curve for us.”

On the foundation’s plan to give out all its money over the next 20 years:

“Ralph had seen foundations go the wrong way, when the initial people running it were no longer running it,” she said. “This was the best way to assure that the people who knew him best would be lifetime trustees.”

She previously said that her husband hoped the foundation’s work would have “a direct impact in the lifetimes of those who knew him best.”

The foundation apparently will focus on established efforts, not start-ups.

“We really want to make an impact,” she said. “The best way to make an impact is to find things that are working well and continue to help them.”

While the grants will be funded over the next two decades, some of that money will go to endowments that will last much longer.

On whether her husband’s name might be found on new buildings:

“From my perspective, yes,” she said. “From Ralph’s perspective, that would not be his objective, but I would want his name identified with greatness.”

So it may happen, but it’s not a top priority.

Don’t expect the Wilson Foundation to provide millions of dollars for any new stadium. Or even any money.

“It’s not an area where we would probably go into,” Mary Wilson said.

Instead, the foundation, defined by its mission statement, will focus on funding efforts to improve people’s lives.

On the Pegulas:

“I am so thrilled with the Pegulas. They have honored Ralph’s legacy and what he means to Buffalo in such a grand way. I am so happy with them.”

She especially appreciated Terry Pegula’s graciousness toward her husband, in brief remarks Pegula made just before his first game as owner last October. Pegula told the sold-out stadium crowd that he normally hated finishing second to anyone, but he didn’t mind coming second after Wilson, who founded the team in 1959.

Mary Wilson remains a huge Bills fan, she plans to attend all the home games this season, and she believes the Pegulas have great business minds.

She also doesn’t plan to intrude in any way on their ownership of the team.

“Now it’s their business.”

On the new life-sized statue of her husband:

The Bills’ goal is to have the statue built and installed in the stadium’s new Founders Plaza, in time for the coming season, although it’s unclear exactly where that will be.

The artist designing the statue saw a photo of Wilson and was struck by how approachable he seemed. So that feature will be built into the statue – apparently via an outstretched arm.

“The fans will be able to go up and shake Ralph’s hand,” Mary Wilson said, suggesting how that would capture his essence. “Because he was so approachable.”

On the nickname for Ralph C. Wilson Stadium:

“The Ralph? I love it. Oh my God, how could you not love it? It shows familiarity, and that was Ralph.”

Not only did he love the fans, she said, but he loved chatting with them, especially while walking through the stadium concourses.

“I love it being called The Ralph, and it will never stop being called The Ralph.”

On her husband’s legacy:

Mary Wilson thinks people will remember him as “the great man he was,” a man of vision who had the ability to make others’ lives better.

“I think he’d be so excited that his money would be doing good, not in helping people live extravagant lifestyles, but in making an impact on people’s lives. I think he’d be blown away by it.”

She also thinks he’s enjoying this whole process, watching the trustees shape the foundation.

“He’s having a lot of fun up there, watching us try to navigate this.”

On jumping from a plane, with Bills coach Rex Ryan:

“I wouldn’t mind going skydiving with him, but I’d rather go with a pro.”

email: gwarner@buffnews.com

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