The Legacy of Dick Fairbanks
The Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation, Inc. was established in 1986 by Richard M. (“Dick”) Fairbanks, the founder and owner of Fairbanks Communications, Inc., a privately held company.
For over 50 years, Mr. Fairbanks was a leader and innovator in radio broadcasting. His company owned and operated 20 radio stations around the country, a television station in Atlanta, cable television systems, a charter airplane company, and had interests in real estate. Mr. Fairbanks established the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network when he owned and operated WIBC radio.
During the years he was active in broadcasting in his hometown of Indianapolis, Mr. Fairbanks was very involved with professional, civic, and cultural organizations. He served on many boards including Butler University, Better Business Bureau, United Way of Central Indiana, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. He was also a director of Merchants National Bank for 20 years. Mr. Fairbanks was one of the owners of the Indiana Pacers in the 1980’s during the team’s transition from the American Basketball Association to the National Basketball Association.
Mr. Fairbanks lived most of his life in Indiana although he moved to Key Largo, Florida, with his second wife, Virginia, in his later years. He was the President of the Foundation until his death in August 2000.
The Fairbanks Family
Richard M. (“Dick”) Fairbanks was the grandson of Indianapolis resident Charles Warren Fairbanks, who built a successful legal practice with a specialty in railroad bankruptcies. Charles Warren (C.W.) Fairbanks retired from the law and entered politics, where he was highly influential in the Indiana Republican Party. In 1897, C.W. Fairbanks was elected by Indiana voters to the U.S. Senate. He was re-elected in 1903 but resigned in 1904 to join the campaign trail with Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was elected President and Fairbanks served as his Vice President from 1905 to 1909. Following his service in Washington, D.C., Charles Warren Fairbanks returned to Indianapolis and resumed the practice of law.
C.W. Fairbanks was married to Cornelia Cole Fairbanks and the couple resided in Indianapolis in a brick and cut-stone mansion located at the southwest corner of Thirtieth and North Meridian Streets. Cornelia Cole was active in the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution and was elected vice president general and then president general of the national society. Together, C.W. and Cornelia Cole Fairbanks raised one daughter and four sons: Adelaide, Warren, Frederick, Richard and Robert. Charles Warren Fairbanks (1852-1918) and Cornelia Cole Fairbanks (1852-1913) are buried together at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.
Dick was born on March 27, 1912, at 2939 North Illinois Street, Indianapolis. His mother died when he was only five months old, and while his father, Richard M. Fairbanks, Sr., pursued his career, Dick was raised by his grandparents and his Aunt Adelaide. He attended Park School for boys in Indianapolis, followed by the boarding schools Phillips Andover Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and Milford School in Milford, Connecticut.
Dick Fairbanks attended Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and returned to Indianapolis in 1931 to marry his childhood sweetheart, Mary Caperton. Back in Indianapolis, Dick joined the family newspaper business and began his career as a classified advertisement salesman for The Indianapolis News. During World War II, Dick Fairbanks served as an officer on Admiral Chester Nimitz’ staff in the Pacific.
Dick’s grandfather, Charles Warren Fairbanks, was in the investor group that purchased The Indianapolis News in the late 1800’s. The paper was owned by the Fairbanks family until 1948 when Dick Fairbanks negotiated the merger of The Indianapolis News with The Indianapolis Star. In the same year, he formed a company to purchase WIBC radio station.
Over time, Dick built a highly successful communications business developed upon radio stations and cable television systems. Dick and Mary raised two sons, Anthony and Richard M. Fairbanks III, and were happily married until Mary’s death from cancer in 1967. Dick married Virginia Nicholson Brown in 1968 and enjoyed a happy marriage with Virginia until his death in 2000. Virginia remained in Florida until her death in 2007.
The Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation
In the latter part of his life, the things that seemed to hold most value to Dick Fairbanks were Indianapolis, his wife Virginia, and his personal vision of what constituted success. Public recognition came to Dick Fairbanks in 1995 in the form of an honorary title granted as a personal tribute by then Indiana governor, Evan Bayh – Sagamore of the Wabash. Established by Governor Ralph Gates in the late 1940s, the Sagamore of the Wabash award is bestowed on one who has rendered distinguished service to the state or the governor. Dick Fairbanks had previously been recognized by Governor Harold Hadley (1957-1961) with his first Sagamore of the Wabash award.
As his wealth steadily grew, one major factor that figured into the decisions Dick Fairbanks made as to the disposition of his fortune was his view on inheritance. Dick did not seem ambitious to pass on sizable wealth to his children. He gave them educational opportunities, and it was up to them to pursue their chosen fields and make a life for themselves. In October 1986, Dick Fairbanks entered the office of his attorney, Leonard J. (Len) Betley, with a copy of an article from the September 29 issue of Fortune magazine, which he said dealt with matters that he had been thinking about for some time. The article, titled “Should You Leave It All to the Children?” was about what really wealthy people did to keep their children and grandchildren from being destroyed by their wealth. Warren Buffett was one of those quoted, for he was already very wealthy by the 1980s. Buffett said that setting up heirs with a “lifetime supply of food stamps just because they came out of the right womb” can be “harmful” for them and “is an antisocial act.” Philanthropist Curt Carlson, founder of Radisson Hotels, was quoted as asking, “How the hell do we keep our money from destroying our kids?” The article stated that Buffett planned to give most of his money to his charitable foundation.
Less than a month later, on October 27, 1986, the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation was incorporated and capitalized with a $5,000 contribution from Dick Fairbanks, who, along with his wife, Virginia, and his attorney, Len Betley, served as the Foundation’s Board members. Dick initially intended the Foundation to remain a “stand by” foundation, with the idea that upon his death the bulk of his estate would go to the Foundation. However, Dick made large contributions to the Foundation beginning in the mid-1990s following the sale of various radio and cable properties by Fairbanks Communications. Following his death in August 2000, the Foundation was fully capitalized. Len Betley was named President and Chairman of the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation.
Dick Fairbanks did not articulate very specific details about how the Foundation should be directed. His two primary wishes were that grants would be awarded to organizations located in and serving Indianapolis, Indiana, and that a primary emphasis should be upon health. Dick also expressed interest in a select number of organizations with historical family connections to himself or his grandparents, Charles Warren and Cornelia Cole Fairbanks. It is likely that Dick Fairbanks’s choice not to be more specific in setting objectives for the Foundation was a reflection of his business philosophy, which was to be rather ad hoc and opportunistic. Indeed, strategic planning was not in Dick Fairbanks’s blood. According to his business associates, if there was any talk of a long-range vision for his company, his eyes would begin to glaze over. Decisive almost to a fault, Fairbanks had no trouble judging whether an idea made sense or whether it would work for the business, but any planning was done on an ad hoc basis, and this seemed to work for him. According to Len Betley, Fairbanks wanted his Foundation to make grants that would have an impact, whether a major new building or a critical small grant to a struggling organization. “In his business, Dick was a careful risk taker,” Betley says. “I suspect that he wanted his Foundation to be the same.”
Today, the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation continues to focus its grantmaking in Indianapolis and in the areas of Education, Health and the Vitality of Indianapolis. The funding themes within each focus area continuously evolve to reflect lessons learned from prior grants and the changing local and national environment.