After two years of fighting, the Clara Blackford and W. Aubrey Smith Foundation will have a locally appointed board of directors.
The three individuals chiefly responsible for fighting for local control of the foundation’s funds received “Denison’s Giving Back, Moving Forward” award presented by Major Janet Gott Friday during the Denison Development Alliance Summit.
The foundation was set up following the death of Mrs. Smith. Her estate was used to establish a foundation that donated money to local organizations. Over the decades the foundation had contributed nearly $28 million dollars total to the community.
Kristine McKinney made the announcement during a presentation on the history of the Smith Foundation.
“Picture this, five senior citizens from little Denison, Texas fighting the third largest bank in the world,” McKinney said.
The previous board had been dissolved in 2017 after the bank left the city. The current site of City Hall, at 300 West Main Street, was the former site of the Bank of America before it left the city.
Ronnie Cole and Sherrie Christie, former board members, took the fight to the attorney general’s office. At first, it was dismissed, but the Denison residents filed their own lawsuit with the financial backing of the city and Denison Development Foundation agreeing to assist with legal fees.
A federal judge recently reinstated the local board to have control of distribution of the funds permanently, McKinney said.
Following her presentation Gott called Cole, McKinney and Christie up to the podium to hand them each the Giving Back, Moving Forward award. Gott said it was the first time she had given the award to three individuals at once. Cole and Christie were the plaintiffs in the suit and McKinney assisted with research.
Gott compared their struggle to restore the local board to the story of David and Goliath.
“When Bank of America made the decision to take away local control of the Smith Foundation, which had been left for the explicit purpose of benefiting the citizens of Denison, Texas, some unintended heroes emerged,” Gott said. We had three committed citizens armed with the truth, original intent and honor seeking justice for the benefactors of the Smith Foundation. They had nothing to gain personally. Their purpose was totally selfless. Their mantra was, what is right, is right.”
Denison City Manager Jud Rex said there are too many great people in Denison to recognize them all but the work the three did was a big deal.
“Ronnie, Sherry and Kris that were recognized…that is such a huge thing that they accomplished,” Rex said. “Really putting their necks out there and going up against Goliath and helping bring money back to Denison that really should have stayed here. That is a huge accomplishment.”
After the summit the three said they were surprised to be called heroes for their efforts.
“We don’t look at ourselves as heroes,” Christie said. “We love Denison. We did this for Denison totally with a passion to do what Mrs. Smith wanted. Which was always and forever to benefit the people of Denison. We love Denison, that’s the reason we were willing to do it. It couldn’t have been done without the city committing the money to pay attorney fees.”
Ronnie Cole said a new board would be formed in the near future with some members being appointed from the city council and some being nominated by the Denison Independent School District board of trustees He said they would come from all walks of the community from health care, religious organizations and others. The former board members would not serve. There would also not be elected officials on the board.
“We couldn’t have done this alone,” Cole said. “Kris did an amazing job on researching the Smith Foundation and getting all the facts and numbers together so we could fight this. It was obvious once those numbers came to light we had no decision to make but go forward with this. The backing of the mayor and city council was huge.”
Gott said the three individuals were amazing people who have dedicated their entire adult lives to serving the community.
“That is worth recognizing,” Gott said.”But for them to go above and beyond to do what they did to bring the Smith Foundation back to our community is just amazing. Mrs. Smith intended for that foundation to directly benefit the citizens of Denison, Texas. They made a conscious decision they were going to fight that battle. We are so proud of them and fortunate to have them as citizens of our community.
The city council joined the fight last year when it announced it would provide funding to the cause.
Denison Development Alliance President Tony Kaai said it was a big win for the citizens of Denison.
“The significance of that can’t be measure,” Kaai said. “When you have a foundation that has contributed nearly $28 million dollars to a community over a period of time, that’s been taken away. That is very damaging to lots of non profit organizations. That is an amazing feat. It took courage and we’re back on track with that. We’re fortunate to have a foundation of that size and nature that is dedicated to Denison. Most city’s will not have that. They really do phenomenal things, it was an incredible outcome.”
What do you think of the foundation being returned to the citizens of Denison? Let Denison area reporter Richard A. Todd know by sending him an email to email@example.com. He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter @RichardAToddHD.