Charity Begins At Home Redux (with apologies to Betsy) by
(71 Stories)

Prompted By Charity

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I was tempted to compose my story on the charity prompt simply by posting a copy of my CV with the caption, “See; I get it!”  But that seemed to be both slothful and obnoxious, even by my own loose standards.  Nonetheless, with all due modesty aside, suffice it to say that that there are a great number of organizations — primarily related to childhood education and legal services/equal justice — to which I have for many years devoted myself.

I really do a lot of non-profit work and always have.  But, in many ways, I feel as if it was a non-choice given my upbringing.

But my point here is not to downplay my involvement in some sort of “humblebrag” (one of those great new terms, like “frenemies,” that perfectly embodies something that has been around for years).  Frankly, I really do a lot of non-profit work and always have.  But, in many ways, I feel as if it was a non-choice given my upbringing, in much the same way as working hard in school and getting into a good college and getting an advanced degree was. That was what was done in my family and that is what you did, too.

Of course, this is not always the case and, in reading other stories on this prompt, I have been interested in seeing some that reflect a similar family dynamic and others in which the sense of charity emerged independently.  I sometimes wonder if I would have “gotten it” had it not been such a foregone family conclusion.

My mother was my particular role model here.  She was on the regional board of education* (replacing “Polly'” from one of my other stories when she went off to become a college president), the boards of a couple of scholarship funds, the New Haven Symphony board, the local arts council board, the local League of Women Voters board and was one of the founders of Long Wharf Theatre, a now-renowned repertory theater in New Haven.  And, every December, she made a point of pulling out her checkbook and writing checks to these and many other good organizations.  I don’t know if she ever literally said to me, “This is what you do,” but the message was clear.  And I got it.

Amusingly, the one thing that she did not like to do was to volunteer for these organizations.  She either wanted to be on the governing board or have a paid position — usually head of development —  as she did at the Symphony and Long Wharf.  She also ran the gift shop at the Peabody Museum at Yale until she was mandatorily retired at age 75 — as could be done at the time — and opened up her own museum gift shop.  Her view was that these organizations, as good as they may be, never took volunteers seriously and she damn well wanted to be taken seriously.  Her view was probably an over-generalization, but I still think there is more than a little truth to it.

In choosing my title for this story, I chose an old line (couldn’t come up with any clever song titles, I’m afraid). But I wasn’t intending to steal it from Betsy, who used it before I did — something I conveniently forgot when I first chose it. Still, like Betsy, I didn’t mean it in the original sense of being charitable within your own family.  Rather, as is probably obvious, I meant it in terms of this is where you can learn it.  And I, too, learned it at home. Thanks, Mom!


* The featured image is a picture of the regional board of education from my high school yearbook.  My mother is the woman who is the fourth person from the right. Until I took this picture, I had forgotten that she was Vice Chairman of the board.

Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin

Characterizations: right on!, well written


  1. Laurie Levy says:

    Your mother’s example was a wonderful inspiration for giving of oneself to help others. I love that she involved you in her December giving, even as an observer. I tend to agree with her about volunteering. I will do it if I think I can actually make a difference. As the grateful recipient of so much volunteerism at my preschool, I learned how important it is to respect, thank, and have meaningful work for those who offer their services.

  2. Suzy says:

    John, thanks for this story. It’s very interesting to learn about all the boards your mother was on, and it makes sense that her example is what led you to be on the many boards you are on, which I have heard about over the years. Of course being on a board is a volunteer position, so when you say she didn’t like to volunteer, that wasn’t quite accurate. She just didn’t want to be a volunteer who did grunt work. I somehow think that even if she had been one of those grunt work volunteers, she would have managed to get the organizations to take her seriously!

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Suzy. Yes; my mom was fine being on boards, because those were governance positions — really at the top of the food chain — so, though unpaid, she viewed them as very different from volunteer positions. And, in fact, she did do a fair amount of volunteering at first, which was the basis for her negative views of it. For example, she basically told the Symphony to pay her to do this development work (and give her a title), and that’s what happened. She was fearless.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, John. Clearly, we had the same thought in mind when we came up with the title (I tend to write my stories ahead, so I wrote this a few weeks ago). Just as you, I saw the example of my parents, in my case, primarily my father, who encouraged me to also be involved in various forms of volunteer or charitable work. (I always volunteered at my kids’ schools, which is another form of giving…one doesn’t always have to write a check.)

    Your mother sounds like a high-powered woman, who could have been a superstar business woman in a different era. She set a great example for you.

  4. John, you really do have a way with words…and I always enjoy your self-effacing humor!

  5. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!
    We so often take our parents’ good examples for granted, nice to hear how you so honor your mom!

  6. You walk the walk so take the credit John!

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