Every Wednesday, four men meet in a small conference room in downtown Spokane to distribute some of the wealth earned by a dry goods dealer more than 100 years ago.
With folders and stacks of letters towering between them, Comstock Foundation trustees carry out the legacy of Josie Comstock Shadle, a descendant of a pioneer family who died in 1954 with no children and left $1.8 million to a private foundation honoring her father, a former Spokane mayor.
The Comstock money came largely from ownership in The Crescent department store, founded in 1889, by J.M. Comstock and his partner, R.B. Paterson.
Josie and husband, Eugene A. Shadle, a Crescent partner who died 10 years before her, were philanthropic. They gave the city land for two parks and money for public corridors along the Spokane River near the Bowl and Pitcher and Deep Creek canyon. She gave St. Luke’s Memorial Hospital $100,000 for a new wing.
But it is Josie Comstock Shadle’s foundation that is responsible for much of the look, shape and feel of Spokane today.
For 46 years the foundation has been like a generous uncle to Spokane’s cultural and social-service groups. But in four years the foundation and the money may be gone. Trustees said they have no choice: the assets will be dished out and the foundation will go away to meet the requirements of its charter.
“Comstock has been the capital foundation, bricks and mortar if you will,” said Bill Dillon, director of the Northeast Community Center, which got Comstock money to expand its low-income medical clinic. “There are always other sources, but they aren’t in town and if you’re going to get anything these days, it’s from a local foundation.”
The Comstock Foundation now has $13 million and the trustees - there have been only eight - have given away more than $16 million.
Comstock money is paying for a new grand piano for the Spokane Symphony ($80,000), helping build the new Ogden Hall women’s shelter ($500,000) and paying for a new $100,000 building for Cancer Patient Care. It’s paying for the educations of Spokane kids at Gonzaga University, Whitworth College and Whitman College in Walla Walla.
All the money stays in the Spokane area and is given to established organizations, largely for expansion and improvements of facilities, vans, technology, office supplies, mortgage payments and land.
“Yes, we give a lot of money away,” said Horton Herman, 84, the Comstock trustee with the longest tenure. “For every million we’ve put out, I’m sure the city has gotten $2 million more.”
Herman was a law partner with Roy E. Lowe, Comstock’s attorney. When appointed a trustee in 1957, the foundation was giving away $100,000 a year. Last year, it handed out $923,000.
Retired attorney Harold Coffin, bank trust manager Charles Leslie and Spokane industrialist Luke Williams are the other trustees.
The men said they try to do what’s best for the community, but ultimately fall back on their instincts. Herman is the only trustee who actually met the foundation’s benefactor.
“I don’t have any basis to know what Josie wanted except to know they were very interested in parks and very interested in the community,” Herman said. “She obviously was because she left her money to this foundation.”
Trustees try to honor Comstock’s commitment to parks and kids and gave money for a wading pool at Liberty Park, for repairs to Comstock pool, for sports fields at 46th and Regal and around East Valley High School. They have committed $100,000 to building a North Side softball complex.
But the trustees last year paid for things Comstock couldn’t have fathomed.
They pledged $100,000 for an outpatient surgery center at Holy Family Hospital; $900 for a public-education program to encourage bike helmets; $40,000 for a building to house the Spokane AIDS Network; $10,000 a year for five years to Habitat for Humanity to buy building lots.
The foundation offered to help build the Pacific Science Center in Riverfront Park. When fire raced through the Union Gospel Mission it paid for rent on a portable kitchen.
One of its largest gifts was the purchase of the old downtown Sears building for Spokane’s library. The building was demolished to make room for the current building.
Comstock paid for the expansion of Spokane’s City Hall and for the City Council chambers.
Over the years, Herman said he’s seen needs change from vans and buildings to software and technology.
“Right before the computers started it was vans,” said Herman. “We must have bought 15 to 20 vans all around town.”
Despite being the largest giver in town, the foundation runs informally and without fanfare. There is only one part-time employee and trustees talk as often by telephone as in person when making decisions.
“They’re pretty quiet about what they do. There’s no announcement in the papers, no mention of it all,” said Mike Adolfae, of the city community development department, which got money to help an East Central neighborhood child-care center expand.
There is a formal application process but groups that deal regularly with trustees can write asking for money anytime.
“We work real fast,” said Herman. “We’ll give notice of how much money, if any, in two weeks. We don’t try to say no, we try to say yes.”
“If you’re in the zone of their area of interest they’re real easy to work with,” said Don Higgins, director of the West Central Community Center. “They want solid documentation but it’s not too arduous. … It’s not real easy for us to find grant money like this.”
Part of the trustees’ job is to manage foundation assets.
Those holdings swelled when The Crescent was bought out by Marshall Field & Co. of Chicago in 1969. Those shares were sold in 1972 and 1973. Herman said the trustees sold most of their stock holding before the 1987 market crash, netting a cool $4 million.
The pace of giving quickened after that because federal tax laws require foundations to disperse at least 5 percent of their assets a year. That pace should continue until 2000 when trustees plan to liquidate the assets and the Comstock Foundation will dissolve itself.
“We’re going to do what the trust says, we’re going to terminate it,” Herman said.
“It’s going to be sorely missed, but we have no ability or desire to do it any other way,” added Williams.
The lines are already forming.
A Cheney-Cowles Museum trustee already asked for all the remaining money to help pay for expansion.
Herman said there will be no surprises and trustees will continue to support those who already get money.
“We’ll distribute it among the people we have confidence in,” said Herman.
If organizations invest it wisely, Comstock’s legacy should continue. He pointed to Gonzaga, which used annual $75,000 Comstock allocations to build a $1.7 million scholarship fund.
“In time I would think they won’t even miss it,” he said. “They’ve had a good shot at it for 50 years. Nothing is forever.”
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