CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Nonprofit board meetings are generally dull affairs, but twice lately at the quarterly Clay Center board meetings, someone has wondered out loud who will be the next generation of civic-minded volunteers who will step forward to lead.
It is a question without a simple answer.
In the mid-1980s, the Thomas family sold a coal business and the Clay brothers sold the family's newspaper business, events that ushered in a golden quarter-century of Charleston civic leadership and philanthropy.
When the Thomases sold Carbon Fuel Co. in 1985, Jim and Newton Thomas had more time to serve on nonprofit boards and ask people they knew to make big charitable gifts. When Lyell and Buckner Clay sold the Charleston Daily Mail, the Beckley Register-Herald and a few TV stations in 1987, they established the Clay Foundation, which quickly became the biggest charitable giver in Charleston.
Newton Thomas once led the Clay Center board, Jim Thomas was an active board member, and Nancy Thomas, Newton's wife, once led the board of Sunrise Museum, later folded into the Clay Center. They were all regulars at Clay Center board meetings. Today, the Clay Center board is without a Thomas.
The Clay Foundation closed its doors in 2010, having spent down much of its funds over 23 years, then quickly committing the rest over a final few months.
John McClaugherty, who had envisioned the Clay Center and worked tirelessly to make it happen, died in 2003 a few months before it opened. Thad Epps, the former Union Carbide spokesman who had spent retirement calling on friends and asking them to donate money, died the same year.
Who has replaced these giants?
"They are fewer and farther between," said Becky Ceperley, CEO of the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation.
The name that comes up most often is Tom Heywood, 56 and a law partner at Bowles Rice. Heywood sits on the Clay Center board and is chairman of both the Kanawha Valley Council on Philanthropy and the Library Foundation of Kanawha County, the group raising money for a planned new downtown library.
"Tom is very generous with his time," Ceperley said. "But he needs help. It can't all rest on one individual. If a community is going to thrive, it needs many more people to step up."
Civic generosity hasn't vanished, but it has changed, Ceperley said. "The next generation thinks about it differently. They tend to want to make a difference in their lifetime. They're not as focused on leaving a legacy. In the past it was, 'This area has been good to me.'"
Civic gratitude has remained the motivation for Betty Schoenbaum, widow of Shoney's founder Alex Schoenbaum, Ceperley said. "Mrs. Schoenbaum tells people how fortunate she is to be able to make these contributions and give back to a community that has meant so much to her and her family."