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Pliny’s Purse

“Do good by stealth, and blush to find it fame.”

― Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man

pliny's purse

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Ghosts of Christmas Past #24: Pliny’s Purse

Alexander Pope tells us that anonymity is a donor’s wisest course. I wonder what Pope might say when the donor himself is equally ignorant of his charity.

In the year leading to Agincourt’s 150th anniversary, a wide range of topics occupied this space. And among the earliest was a piece about our Founders, the five investors who planted the seed of Agincourt in 1853. That group included the three Tennant brothers, their banker* and a brother-in-law. I repeat this historical nugget for just one reason: of the three Tennants, Numbers 1 and 3 stayed on, while Number 2 went west — swallowed by the gold fields of California. But Pliny Tennant left a larger mark on the community than he could have imagined.

Pliny’s profit from the sale of lots continued to accumulate during his absence. After three years, with no word from the frontier and every reason to believe he’d not return, the others created a fund called “Pliny’s Purse”, intended for charity and specified as anonymous.

Very few of us were even aware of the Five Founders, let alone one-hundred-and-fifty years of benefaction. I called in some favors, applied the little leverage left to me, and —well, yes — I even begged for some insight to the operation of Pliny’s Purse….and didn’t get very far. Frankly, I took all of that as a very good sign Tennant’s legacy is in good hands. Secrets are notoriously hard to keep. Here is as much as I can say.

#1) Three Tennants, Horace and Virgil and their sister Helen, were the first of a self-perpetuating “committee” evolving through recruitment of others from the community at large. There have been as few as three and as many as five at any time, all sworn to a secrecy that remains unbroken.

#2) Their mission from the outset was to follow Alexander Pope’s advice: “Do good by stealth, and blush to find it fame.” Help those in need. Do it in such a way that no one notices, not even the recipients.

#3) Let generosity be tempered, alone, by discretion and good stewardship.

That model seems to have functioned well in a community of our size, where invisibility is difficult and want can be more easily distinguished from need. I’m told that medical expenses, medications as well as treatments, have been covered. Foreclosures forestalled. Loved ones reunited. The hapless helped. The vulnerable reassured. All of which put me in mind of Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when Arthur Dent and his fellow travelers meet the Man who Rules the Universe:

“The Ruler of the Universe is a man living in a small shack on a world that can only be reached with a key to an unprobability field or use of an Infinite Improbability Drive. He does not want to rule the universe and tries not to whenever possible, and therefore is by far the ideal candidate for the job. He has an odd, solipsistic view of reality: he lives alone with his cat, which he has named ‘The Lord’ even though he is not certain of its existence. He has a very dim view of the past, and he only believes in what he senses with his eyes and ears (and doesn’t seem too certain of that, either): anything else is hearsay, so when executive-types visit to ask him what he thinks about certain matters, such as wars and the like, he tells them how he feels without considering consequences. As part of his refusal to accept that anything is true, or simply as another oddity, ‘…he talked to his table for a week to see how it would react.’ He does sometimes admit that some things may be more likely than others – e.g. that he might like a glass of whiskey, which the visitors leave for him.”

The keepers of Pliny’s Purse deserve your thanks as much as they warrant their invisibility.

* One of my favorite urban sculptures once stood on a pedestrian island in the course of Chicago’s Wacker Drive. One of the three heroic bronze figures is Haym Salomon, an obscure figure in American history who financed the Revolutionary War.


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