Some believe that the privileged rich, especially those who have inherited wealth, contribute little to working men and women. Harold Stirling Vanderbilt, whose great-grandfather amassed an unprecedented fortune in the shipping and rail industries, defied that notion.
The great-grandson acquired Mt. Airy farm, south of Mount Jackson, in 1941. The farm no doubt served as a retreat from city life, but at the same time, he gained an understanding of local needs, specifically, the need for a hospital. Vanderbilt and his wife, Gertrude, responded with substantial gifts (some three-quarters of a million dollars by 1978, including bequests from both). Local fundraisers recalled his unwavering devotion to the hospital and the encouragement he provided them, particularly when the financial outlook appeared bleak, as it often did.
Interestingly, years earlier he had displayed his willingness to work with small communities. After a property dispute with Palm Beach, Florida, officials, he purchased an undeveloped area called Manalapan, located south of the city. He had it developed, incorporated, and served as its mayor for 14 years and on the town council for over 30 years.
Born to affluence in 1884, Vanderbilt earned a law degree from Harvard and later served with distinction in the U.S. navy during World War I. Having inherited equity in some eight railroad companies, he was a director of the New York Central, the core of his great- grandfather's empire, until 1954.
Along the way, he found time to indulge his passion for racing his J-class yachts, securing the America's Cup three times during the 1930. He had previously, in 1925, created contract bridge, a pastime now enjoyed by tens of millions of people.
Here in Shenandoah County, memories of Harold Vanderbilt's benevolence have faded. The nurses' dormitory that bore his name has been demolished. Currently, discussion of his contribution might focus on the tax benefits of charitable giving or on fluctuations in the value of the dollar. Such idle musings, though, would miss the point.
The real value of his support is illustrated in a letter shared with me by the Special Collections manager of public services at Vanderbilt University, where his papers are housed. That May 1963 letter from Frank S. Tavenner, Jr., his local attorney, details the financial and tax ramifications of the sale of the Mt. Airy farm. In closing, Tavenner adds an expression of personal gratitude. Unbeknownst to his client, the attorney had suffered a "very severe heart attack" in March and had been working on the sale from his bed. Tavenner was convinced that the existence of a hospital a few miles from his home, that not having to travel to Winchester, Harrisonburg, or Charlottesville for emergency treatment, likely saved his life.
Harold Vanderbilt was a great champion of small communities and a great American. He died, appropriately, on the Fourth of July, 1970.