R. Kingman Webster '54
True giving is not measured in money
By Jim Schakenbach
Kingman Webster '54 is a gregarious man to whom a lot of other adjectives could be attached - charming, compassionate, articulate, opinionated, and above all, active. Kingman has not slowed down since his retirement in 1989 as executive vice president and treasurer of then-family-owned Blue Seal Feeds, a 136-year-old regional manufacturer of pet and livestock feeds. Quite the contrary. Made "very well off" by the sale of Blue Seal, Kingman has become a well-known philanthropist, determined to make his money count while he is alive, and one who "simply cannot understand" people who wait until after they're dead to put their money to work.
His story starts over fifty years ago when, as a young man looking at colleges, he applied to only one - WPI. "I liked science, had a bent toward engineering and math and so I was attracted to WPI," stated Kingman. His father, however, had graduated from MIT and took him on a campus tour, hoping Kingman would follow in his footsteps. "But I just didn't like it," added Kingman with a smile. "So I applied to WPI, not thinking about what would happen if I didn't get accepted. I suppose I should have had a back-up plan," he chuckled. Fortunately for Kingman -- and many others -- he was accepted.
Graduating in 1954 with a degree in physics, it didn't take Kingman long to discover that "I was not a physicist." Following a stint in the Army, Kingman was faced with a difficult choice - working for the family business or striking out on his own. "Fortunately I got some good advice, which was start with the family business, because if you work for a big corporation and are successful, you'll never know if you could have made a go of it with the family business."
Kingman was quick to point out that to many people, going into a family business appears to be an easy route to take. "The average person would say, 'boy, you are lucky, you got it made' and I would say to them 'no, that is the hardest choice you can possibly make'." Kingman observed that working for one's father can be the toughest thing in the world; after all, you're now playing with the father's hard-earned money and he can be reluctant to let any real responsibilities go to his offspring. And when responsibilities are finally passed on, they come with a mixed blessing. "Sooner or later you realize you've got to come up with every answer. You realize people (in the company) are looking to you for the answer - there's no one else - you have to have the answer, and it better be right."
For Kingman the hard questions - and answers - came soon enough. He steered the company through a series of wrenching, expensive changes including the disappearance of one of their biggest markets, to how their feeds were packaged, priced, and distributed. He took Blue Seal from one manufacturing plant and $15 million in annual sales in 1957 to eight manufacturing plants, seventeen retail stores, a fleet of over one hundred tractor trailer trucks, and sales of $150 million in 1989. If this were an ordinary success story, it would stop here. But Kingman, after thirty-two successful years in the family business, was just getting started.
With the sale of Blue Seal came the means to achieve a number of good ends. One evening in 1991, as Kingman sat watching TV with his wife, Dee, a story came on about a man in Louisiana who helped underprivileged kids by providing them with activities and opportunities they normally wouldn't have, showing these children that someone cared about them and their lives. As Kingman tells it, "from where I was sitting, my wife couldn't see me, but the tears were running down my face." With children and grandchildren of his own, Kingman heard the call to reach out and help other, less privileged kids. Within days he began putting together the nucleus of a board of advisors that would eventually become a program that shared the goals and methods of the national "I Have A Dream" project. Most of the funding would come from the Websters' own pockets.
With the superintendent of schools for Lawrence, Massachusetts onboard, Kingman and his team selected the worst school in the worst school district of one of the hardest-hit cities in the state - Lawrence. "Our philosophy was 'well, we can't do much harm here'," Kingman chuckled. "We can only do something positive." With two project coordinators and 62 sixth graders, they got under way. Over the course of several years, the "I Have A Dream - Lawrence, Massachusetts" program as it was officially known, had over a hundred volunteers helping the kids, called Dreamers, with everything from reading and computer literacy to arts and crafts, sports, homework assistance, even field trips to museums, concerts, and mountain climbing.
Kingman and his project coordinators recognized that several of the children held particular promise, so they helped them get into private secondary schools, some of them residential to provide the kids with an escape from abusive, dysfunctional home lives. One of the key schools in the program was Central Catholic High School which, along with its principal, Brother Richard J. Carey, helped a large number of the Dreamers finish high school and go on to fulfill their dreams in college.
With the last of the original Dreamers graduating from high school and the program winding down in 1999, Brother Carey decided it was a good time to retire. The Websters, too, felt it was a good time, but for another purpose. And so at the influential principal's retirement celebration on Sunday, June 7, 1999, Dee and Kingman Webster presented the school with a check for one million dollars.
Not just giving, giving where it counts.
For Kingman Webster, it's not the giving that counts, it's giving where it counts. "That kind of money to a school like Central Catholic can do so much good," he commented. "I felt like I got a lot of traction for that money, because it was in a position to help so many lives." But "I Have a Dream" is not the only project Kingman has undertaken to help make a difference in young people's lives. As one of the founding advisors to WPI's Entrepreneurs Collaborative in 1995, Kingman feels strongly that the school and its students need a program that fosters innovation, entrepreneurship, and business acumen. So strongly, in fact, that in 1997 he gave a check for one million dollars to the program, now known as the Collaborative for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. "The school has done just an outstanding job with its programs," stated Kingman. "WPI amazes me - it is a gem. I cannot imagine another school measuring up to the caliber of its programming."
Kingman also gives advice. To students and entrepreneurs alike he offers this: "The most important resources you have are your mind, your training, and your character. That is what is going to get you through. With those resources you will do very well." For Kingman, true giving has not so much to do with money as it does with character, commitment, ability, and experience. "Money is a resource, but it's just one. Everybody has their experiences and talents to contribute as well. These things count, too."
The last words in this story are not Webster's, but those of a disadvantaged girl who graduated from his "I Have A Dream" program:
"for those of us who have remained faithful to the program and believe in it, we have witnessed the type of relationships that can be established with kids through different experiences... concern, love, and compassion were evident throughout these seven years. The relationships I have made, the people I have met, and the experiences I have been though have really established a sense of what it really means to be concerned with others. Some of the things I have been introduced to because of the program would never have been presented to me elsewhere... I think back and compare myself to other kids around me and I see the affect of the "Dream" program on my life. It has been a push and a major motivation. I cannot think of one meaningful experience because in the whole program I have had too many. But I think the Dreamer who has learned and grown the most is Mr. Webster."