SALT LAKE CITY — He was blind, bent, broke and traveling on borrowed money when he arrived from Glasgow. Few paid the woodworker any mind when he set up his lathe in a place called Liberty and settled in with his wife, Sarah, to raise their seven children and try to eke out a living.
No one could have guessed that a century and more later, hardly a place in the state would not have some sign, some connection, some relationship, some something, with the Scotsman’s surname attached to it:
It’s one thing to emigrate to the promised land and have your descendants proceed to amass a fortune. It’s quite another for them to turn around and give it back.
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Drive the length and width of Utah. Visit its cities, its towns, its schools, its playhouses, its hospitals, its universities, its churches, its museums, its gymnasiums, its parks, its stadiums, its shelters, its food banks, its auditoriums, its gathering places, and you can’t swing a dead cat, as they say, without hitting something that wouldn’t be there if someone named Eccles hadn’t helped pay for it.
Since the 1960s, more than a dozen charitable foundations started by an Eccles have contributed close to $1 billion to worthy causes in Utah. The headliner, the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation, has donated more than $500 million all by itself.
The beneficiaries of this largesse, thousands upon thousands of recipients through the years, way too many to count, run the gamut — from the new Broadway-style theater on Salt Lake’s Main Street to the city park in Castle Dale; from Catholic Community Services to the Trinity AME Church; from the University of Utah business school in Salt Lake City to the Utah Navajo Health System in Montezuma Creek.
The Eccles empire of giving knows no boundaries. Here’s a check for Planned Parenthood, here’s one for Legal Aid, for Utahns Against Hunger, for the Bear River Bird Refuge, for Hogle Zoo, for the Literacy Action Center, for Ballet West, for the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple, for the drill team at Millard High School.
The vast bulk of the support and depth of the influence isn’t readily visible, but some of it is — printed on the sides of buildings, at the entrances to stadiums, in lobbies, on plaques, banners, programs, bricks, statues, even ticket stubs. When you give away as much money as the Eccles, the people who receive it tend to want to sing your praises and put your name up in lights.
That light shines back nearly 200 years, to 1825, when William Eccles was born in the working-class village of Old Kilpatrick, Scotland. He learned to be a woodworker as a boy, a useful trade in a hard economy, but made eminently more difficult when cataracts formed in both of his eyes when he was a teenager, sentencing him to spend his life in a haze.
Undaunted, he married an Irish girl, Sarah Hutchinson, when he was 18, and together they moved to Glasgow to find more customers for the wooden spools he made by touch more than by sight.
In 1863, when William was 38, he and Sarah, weary of being dirt poor and sending their children into the streets and countryside to sell his wares, seized on a loan offer to leave Scotland for America.
When he was 16, William, along with his widow mother, Margaret, had joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; subsequently bringing Sarah and then their children into the fold.
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Eager for members to come to America and populate the new Zion in Utah, the church had established a Perpetual Emigration Fund, offering loans to those looking to relocate. When word came that William and Sarah had been approved for a $375 advance from the fund, they packed up their seven children, and very little else, and set sail for the land of opportunity.
The Scottish newcomers lived briefly in Ogden, then moved to Liberty up Ogden Canyon and finally, after spending two years away in Oregon where there was more demand for William’s wood spools, to the little northern Utah town of Eden.
Scratching out a living wasn’t easy in the new land, even in a place called Eden, but it turned out the Eccleses had an ace in the hole: their second oldest son, David.
Reams have been written, not least a biography by Leonard Arrington, about the economic phenomenon that was David Eccles — Utah’s first multimillionaire, the West’s Rockefeller, an entrepreneur’s entrepreneur before anyone coined the term.
Everything David Eccles touched made money. Just 14 when he arrived in America, with exactly six months' formal education, he first went to work providing for his parents by cutting and hauling lumber for others. Then, at 21, he bought a team of oxen and went into business for himself.
Between 1870 and 1912, he established no less than 54 enterprises in five Western states and Canada, from banks to sawmills to ranches to mines to real estate to the Utah Construction Co., which was regarded at the time as the largest in the world (and was the lead company that later built the Hoover Dam). He employed more people than the government. Might have had more money, too.
Then he died unexpectedly on Dec. 6, 1912, running down South Temple to catch a train to Ogden because he didn’t want to hire a taxi. He was just 63. On the day of his funeral, and you can look this up, flags were lowered at half-staff in Utah, Idaho, Oregon, Nevada and Washington, and for five minutes, trains stopped in their tracks, automobiles paused, and hundreds of businesses shut down to observe a moment of silence for the self-made Scotsman.
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David Eccles' personal estate, apart from his business empire, was worth $7 million ($180 million today) when he died. Having no intention of going out so young, he hadn’t made arrangements for the distribution of his estate, so the state stepped in and divvied it up.
This is where the story gets its only-in-Utah twist, because David left behind 21 children and two wives. He’d married the wives prior to 1890, when polygamy was still legal, but in the eyes of the law in 1912, only his first wife, Bertha, who lived in Ogden, could share in the estate.
Bertha and her 12 children got five-sevenths of the $7 million. The second wife, Ellen, who lived in Logan with David’s other nine children, got nothing, leaving her four sons and five daughters to split up the remaining two-sevenths (which was still about $220,000 each and nothing to scoff at).
It’s what the Logan children did with their inheritance that stands out for the rest of us all these years later.
David and Ellen’s children were just kids when their father died. The oldest of them, Marriner, was a mere 22 years old and fresh off an LDS Church mission to Scotland. Then came Marie, Spencer, Jessie, Emma, George, Nora, Ellen and Willard.
But Marriner was his father’s son, and under his direction, the business empire David left behind didn’t just hold its own, it kept getting bigger and better.
In the 1920s, Marriner and his brother George, the third-oldest son, helped form First Security, a multistate bank holding company so well-managed that when the Great Depression arrived in the 1930s, not only did all the First Security banks survive (while 11,000 banks nationwide didn’t), but President Franklin D. Roosevelt was sufficiently impressed that he appointed Marriner to be head of the Federal Reserve Board so he could help the country survive as well.
It’s why the Federal Reserve’s headquarters building in Washington, D.C., is called the Marriner Eccles Building.
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Somewhere amid all this moneymaking and country-saving, Marriner and his brothers and sisters had a conversation that went something like this:
“We ought to set some of this money aside to perpetually help others.”
The first foundation, the Eccles First Security Foundation, was formed as a corporate foundation in 1952. The family foundations followed: in 1958, the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation; in 1962, the Nora Eccles Treadwell Foundation; in 1972, the Emma Eccles Jones Foundation; in 1973, the Marriner S. Eccles Foundation; in 1981, the Willard L. Eccles Charitable Foundation and Marie Eccles Caine Charitable Foundation; and in 1982, the S.J. and Jessie E. Quinney Foundation.
In all, seven of the nine children of David and Ellen Stoddard Eccles created charitable foundations. Additionally, in 1990, Marriner’s son John established the John D. and Vera E. Eccles Family Foundation, while in 1993, Spencer’s son Spencer set up the Eccles Family Foundation with his wife, Cleone.
And the list keeps growing as many more of David and Ellen’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren continue to establish their own foundations, a group that includes Nancy Eccles Hayward, Susan Eccles Denkers, Janet Quinney Lawson and Frederick Quinney Lawson.
According to the latest data available at foundationcenter.org and guidestar.org — websites that publicize tax returns and other information about foundations for grant writers and the public — the various Eccles-oriented foundations named here have assets that total in excess of $1 billion:
The John D. and Vera E. Eccles Family Foundation ($500,000), Eccles First Security Foundation ($3.9 million), Stephen G. and Susan E. Denkers Family Foundation ($8.4 million), Marie Eccles Caine Charitable Foundation ($12.5 million), Frederick Q. Lawson Foundation ($14.6 million), Willard L. Eccles Charitable Foundation ($19.8 million), Marriner S. Eccles Foundation ($38.9 million), S.J. and Jessie E. Quinney Foundation ($52.3 million), Nancy Eccles and Homer M. Hayward Foundation ($55.8 million), Spencer F. and Cleone P. Eccles Family Foundation ($56.6 million), Janet Q. Lawson Foundation ($61.2 million), Nora Eccles Treadwell Foundation ($73.5 million), and Emma Eccles Jones Foundation ($118.3 million) have $516.3 million between them. Add in the $665 million from the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation and you have more than $1.1 billion.
George and Dolores’s foundation had the advantage of starting early. The couple began making deposits in 1958, with the proviso that nothing would be paid out until after George’s death, which happened in 1982.
Since then, the foundation and the giving have grown exponentially — from a net worth of $45 million and $500,000 in distributions the first year to a current net worth of $665 million and distributions that range between $20 million and $35 million every year.
All this from two people who met in a classroom at Columbia University in New York in the 1920s when they sat in their assigned seats according to alphabetical order: Dolores Doré (pronounced Dore-A) right next to George Eccles.
George and Dolores, who went by the nickname Lolie, were married for 57 years, 48 of them while George was running First Security Corp. from his second-floor office at the corner of 100 South and Main.
They didn’t have any children of their own, so they adopted everybody else’s. The kids’ causes they’ve helped through the decades could fill a small book; so could aid to the arts, education, health care, community welfare, the environment and on and on — right down to the new Eccles Theater on Main Street that is situated, appropriately enough, in the shadow of George’s old office.
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The Eccles foundations certainly don’t stand alone in Utah. The state has 584 charitable foundations, according to foundationcenter.org, that between them give out nearly $200 million on an annual basis.
The Sorenson Legacy Foundation, founded by the family of James LeVoy Sorenson in 2007, and the Huntsman Foundation, set up by Jon and Karen Huntsman in 1988, are nearly as large as the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation, with $661 million and $540 million respectively.
But no one name dominates giving in Utah quite like Eccles. This one family’s ongoing largesse accounts for between 15 and 20 percent of the annual charitable foundation giving in Utah.
What does that mean? It means that about $1 in every $6 dollars can be traced back to a blind woodworker from Glasgow who came to Utah on borrowed money and set up his lathe in a place called Liberty to see if he could figure out a way to pay it back.