The following article was published as a Guest Opinion in the Fall River Herald News,
on September 16, 2015.
The Charlton name is synonymous with philanthropy, and for decades, the face of that largess was the late Earle P. Charlton II, who passed away at his home in Hillsborough, California, on May 24, 2015. Known to his many friends by the sobriquet “Chuck,” he was named in honor of his grandfather, a veritable Merchant Prince who founded the family fortune in retail. As evidenced by his 2001 publication, The Charlton Story, Chuck Charlton was immensely proud of his family heritage and his grandfather, who before his death in 1930 had the foresight to establish numerous charitable trusts. Additional trusts were later created in the names of his wife, Ida, and his children – a testament to the family’s altruism.
Although I always addressed him and referred to him as “Mr. Charlton,” I was fortunate to enjoy a friendship as well as a professional relationship with Chuck Charlton that spanned many years. As his friends and the beneficiaries of his philanthropic work gather to honor this extraordinary man, I would like to share my memories of him.
Mr. Charlton was instilled with an innate sense of noblese oblige. He embraced his legacy and, working with the trustees of the Charlton Charitable Trusts, forged new philanthropic partnerships that have benefited the lives of untold thousands in Southeastern Massachusetts, in the areas of healthcare, education, and social services, among others. Yet despite the well-deserved accolades he received for his part in this beneficence, he adamantly gave full credit to his grandfather.
Mr. Charlton was an astute man of business, an entrepreneur, and a philanthropist in his own right, and for his many accomplishments he will be remembered and eulogized – deservedly so. But in reality he was much more than that, and those of us who were fortunate to have had the gift of his friendship, will forever treasure memories of the man who, though very much a public figure, was in fact a very private person, devoted to his wife, Fran, an ethereal soft-spoken woman who was the personification of kindness, his daughter, Stacey, and his extended family. His outside interests were many, and among his passions were racing and automobile shows, which he judged, and entered; his 1971 Lamborghini Espada 400GT was a consistent winner, of which he was justly proud.
I am not sure exactly when I first met Mr. Charlton, but to say that it was over thirty years ago is not an exaggeration, and it was likely longer. I can say with certainty that our first encounter was at the Fall River Historical Society when I was little more than a boy, and that the introduction was made by my dearest friend and mentor, the late Florence Cook Brigham. Mr. Charlton possessed a special affinity for Mrs. Brigham, who eagerly anticipated his visits to the museum. They habitually talked about “old Fall River,” which Mrs. Brigham knew because she lived it, and about her many recollections of the Charlton family, with whom the Brighams were one-time neighbors, and long-time friends.
Mrs. Brigham admired and respected Mr. Charlton, and always said that he was one of the most remarkable people she had ever known; she said she was certain that when I came to know him, I would feel the same. These were comments I often heard her repeat over the many years we spent together. Being a wise old soul, and knowing me as well as she did, she was, of course, correct. My feelings for Mr. Charlton mirrored and perhaps even exceeded hers, by virtue of the fact that we came to know each other better via our working together on various projects to benefit the Historical Society.
Our relationship was always based on forthright honesty, and I am proud to say that it was sans the insincere flattery that is oftentimes the curse of the philanthropist, displeasing to all who have experienced it. A very astute individual, Mr. Charlton was perceptive and well-schooled in the ins-and-outs of what was very much a family business. Ever the unpretentious gentleman, he knew full well how the game was played, and he never played to lose.
He took his work with the Charlton Charitable Trusts and his own significant personal giving very seriously, and following retirement from a very successful business career – a time when most people relax and enjoy life – he embarked on the equivalent of a full-time job as a philanthropist and devoted the rest of his life to the cause. He once told me that “administering wealth for charitable purposes is a huge responsibility,” and I remember some of those with us at the time murmuring, lest they be overheard, that they did not see the difficulty and would like to try. Many forget that the funds available at any one time were not limitless; difficult decisions had to be made, and every request could not be granted. Personally, I never envied Mr. Charlton’s enormous responsibility, knowing that he agonized over funding decisions that would ultimately affect the lives of countless people. Admirable, yes, very much so. But not enviable in my estimation. And I believe that anyone who really knew him must feel the same.
The Historical Society was very special to Mr. Charlton, and has been the fortunate recipient of several grants from the Ida S. Charlton Charitable Trust, established in memory of his grandmother. The funded projects have included restoration, retail upgrades, the creation of an outdoor garden terrace, and, most recently, the establishment of the Charlton Library of Fall River History, a major undertaking that transformed the existing library and archival area. Mr. Charlton understood the necessity of archival preservation and worked closely with us to ensure that visitors to the museum have access to as much research material as possible.
As a result of his generosity, specialized archival storage units and supplies and a state-of-the-art microfilm reader were procured, rare volumes of local and regional history were rebound or restored, fragile documents and scrapbooks were scanned to microfilm, and an extensive catalogue of Fall River newspaper microfilm was duplicated. In addition, the reading and research rooms were refitted with custom furnishings designed to maximize the space. Today, the user-friendly facility houses the most comprehensive available collection of research material pertaining to the city’s history.
The Historical Society also holds a significant archive of Charlton family material, donated to the museum when Mr. Charlton was settling the estate of his aunt, Ruth (Charlton) Mitchell Masson, who died in 1995 at the age of 104. Included in the collection are hundreds of photographs and manuscripts documenting the lives of various family members, an extensive collection of personal letters written or received by Ruth in the days when she was still Miss Charlton, and rare film footage, with the earliest dating back to the 1920s.
Inasmuch as it comes with the territory and is mainstay for all non-profit organizations, grant writing is often an arduous process, and requesting funding from the Charlton Charitable Trusts has always been rather difficult for me. Mrs. Brigham often said, “Oh, Michael, I hate asking friends for money,” which is exactly how I have always felt when submitting a proposal to the Charlton Charitable Trusts. The advice from Mr. Charlton was always to “round up” the proposed figure, a common practice in grant writing, but I could never bring myself to do it; it seemed insincere to ask for more than what was actually needed to bring a project to fruition. Mr. Charlton, for his part, always said he “found it refreshing” that a request from the Historical Society was always “to the penny.”
Mr. Charlton habitually enclosed an annual Christmas letter with his holiday greeting card, detailing, in a writing style that perfectly mimicked his speaking voice, his myriad activities throughout the year. He was a very busy man. The letters always closed with an update about his beloved daughter, Stacey, of whom his was very proud, evidenced in his fatherly tribute to her busy work schedule, her travels, and her personal life. And there was always mention of his much-loved dog Bubba, who remained faithful to the end. But it was the personal letters he often included with these missives, or those he sent throughout the year, that revealed the true nature of the man. The knowledge that this correspondence has ceased is disheartening, and the letters sent will be treasured by me as reminders of a truly remarkable man.
His last visit to Fall River was in the fall of 2014, when he was honored by the Fall River Area Chamber of Commerce & Industry, and when he came to the Historical Society to see me it was, by his own admission, “to say goodbye,” a poignant scenario that played out with others who were also seeing him for the last time. Clearly very ill and tired, he made the journey through sheer force of will, coupled with the fact that Stacey had worked tirelessly to boost his strength before he left California. By nature, I am not a particularly emotional person, but I freely admit that it took much to maintain my composure during our visit. When he left, I took his hand and said farewell because goodbye seemed too final. To this day I regret words not said, and that I did not embrace him as a friend.
He was much in my thoughts over the ensuing weeks, during which I realized that I had thanked him on countless occasions for all he had done for the Historical Society, and for his personal kindnesses to me, but that I had been remiss in never thanking him for what he had taught me. Knowing that time was fleeting, I wrote him a letter. I thanked him for teaching me the importance of tradition and of legacy, and for respect for those that came before us. But more than that, for teaching me that we all have an obligation to give back in some way, to have a positive influence on the lives of others. Those lessons, and his friendship, were his gifts to me, and I will always be grateful for them.
Mr. Charlton faced death head-on in his own inimitable way and remained as active as possible until incapacitated by the cancer that ultimately took his life. Letters, cards, and faxes were welcome, as were visits from very close friends. In keeping with his thoughtful nature and to ensure privacy for his family, friends were apprised of his death before it was announced publicly, allowing time for personal introspection. Grief was eased by the knowledge that his fight was finally over. His time on earth had come to an end; he lived, and died, by his own terms. He would not have wanted it any other way.
It was a privilege to know you, Mr. Charlton. Farewell my friend.
Fall River Historical Society