While I sat on my porch the other night, a young woman walking by my house and looking happy as all get out stopped to ask, “Are you the guy who wrote that story?”
I finally recognized her as Brielle Tucker, a neighbor from down the block whom I hadn’t seen in years. About four years, actually. The last time I saw Brielle, she’d just begun her freshman year of high school. She’d walked by my house as I sat on my porch back then, too, wearing a T-shirt that said, “Madeira Girls Rock.” I learned she was attending the Madeira School, an incredibly ritzy all-girl boarding school in McLean and that her attendance was arranged via the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. And I wrote a column about how the former Redskins owner, deceased as he was, was expanding the horizons of a little girl from Petworth.
That was the “that story” Brielle asked about the other night. She wasn’t a little girl anymore, though; this time around, she was wearing a sash from Madeira that said “Class of 2011.”
Yes, I was the guy that wrote that, I said.
“I graduated today!” she told me.
Brielle, who turned 18 the day after graduation, caught me up on how Madeira went. So I heard how she got to wake up each day in a room that had a pond on one side and a view of the Potomac on another. She laughed about sharing a beautiful campus with horses from the school’s vaunted equestrian program: “Growing up in Petworth, horses were just the things that you saw at carnivals and the circus,” she says.
Brielle also told me of an internship on Capitol Hill (in the office of Rep. Alcee Hastings of Florida) in her junior year, a ritual all Madeira girls go through. And about how she interned this year with the National Hospice Foundation to fulfill a senior academic prerequisite. She became pals with a classmate who happens to be a daughter of the U.S. attorney general. And then there were all the road trips she took with teammates from Madeira’s Latin Club, and the flight she and other scholarship awardees took to Jamaica on the Cooke Foundation’s nickel.
But the best thing about four years at an elite boarding school? “No commute!” she laughed. “I could just wake up, brush my teeth and go to class.”
The foundation’s namesake died of congestive heart failure in 1997. But back when he had a pulse, Jack Kent Cooke did big things. In 1979, for example, he sold two of the many sports properties he owned, the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers and NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, for more than $67 million, then the biggest transaction in sports history. Also in 1979, he paid first wife Barbara Jean Carnegie $49 million to get out of their marriage, which the Guinness Book of World Records listed as the largest divorce settlement of all time.
A year later, he took over the Washington Redskins, and the team went to four Super Bowls under him, winning three.
Because of the football team’s successes, everything you read about Cooke these days lets him come off regally. But Cooke’s press wasn’t always so glowing. He was something of a punchline by the end, mostly for his failed attempts to rein in his playgirl on-again/off-again wife, Marlene Ramallo Chalmers. As anybody old enough to have read the era’s gossip columns knows, Cooke and Chalmers were originally married in 1990, then briefly unmarried when the mogul alleged she was still married to somebody else, then remarried again. A prenup reportedly stipulated that the pair live as “man and wife.” At one point, Chalmers was nabbed by cops while driving a convertible Jaguar around Georgetown with a handsome young man on her hood.
But the charity that bears his name is no punchline.
Cooke wrote his four wives out of his last will and testament. He gave eldest son John Kent Cooke a sum in the low eight figures—not enough to keep the football team in the family. But in Section 12, Paragraph C of the original version of his will, Cooke was specific about what should happen to the proceeds from a sale of the Redskins: “The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation shall be organized to award substantial scholarships to students pursuing a post-graduate degree who have shown unique overall excellence, both in academic endeavors and in extracurricular activities, during their undergraduate careers.”
Apparently just before dying, Cooke added a codicil allowing the foundation to dole out undergraduate college scholarships as well, and to spend his funds on “an orphanage or for children abandoned by their parents who need support and encouragement in their development.”
That leeway came in handy once bidding for the Redskins got going in 1999. A group led by Dan Snyder bought the team for $800 million—more than double the previous record for an existing team. Because the figure was hundreds of millions of dollars more than the projected sale price, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation instantly became one of the biggest educational charities in existence.
It’s still massive: According to current Internal Revenue Service paperwork, the foundation’s assets total $535,480,126.
“We don’t do fundraising,” says Lawrence Kutner, a clinical psychologist and former New York Times columnist now serving as executive director of the Cooke Foundation.
Foundations of this sort get tax breaks; in exchange, federal law requires them to spend at least 5 percent of their resources each year. Last year, the Cooke Foundation gave away $19,020,073.
That’s a lotta tuition. To spread out the Redskins windfall, foundation directors have expanded their mission far beyond Cooke’s original graduate-students-only directive.
The group set up a Junior Scholars program that, among other things, arranges for public school kids to get a private school education. And though the scholarships are available nationally, local students get preference. A Cooke Foundation scout discovered Tucker at Paul Public Charter School off Missouri Avenue NW; at the time, she was a sixth-grader known for math and linguistic wizardry.
A few years’ worth of discussions with Tucker’s teachers and family eventually led to Madeira.
Given the support system she’s got at home, Tucker would likely have thrived anywhere. But she appreciates everything that the Cooke Foundation’s efforts and funds have brought her.
“My world is bigger because of Madeira,” Tucker says. “It’s more than giving out money or scholarships. It’s support, and it’s people who want to help you and see you reach your dreams.”
Kutner says that the foundation is now looking to help young musicians, painters, dancers, or anybody else who by “quirk of their birth didn’t have the resources” to get an education that measures up to their gifts.
“People say I get to be Santa Claus, but everybody at the foundation gets to be Santa Claus,” Kutner says. “I was raised in the Bronx by an immigrant single mom who died when I was a teenager. People reached out to me, and it turned my life around. So I get what we do not just at an intellectual level. I get it at a gut level, and a lot of people here get it at the gut level, too.”
Though Cooke’s fame and money came via sports, The New York Times reported shortly after his death that his will “stipulated that no money was to be used for athletic scholarships.”
That edict remains in place, says Kutner.
“The one thing we don’t take into account is sports,” he says. “We recognize that there are a lot of programs out there for athletes.”
Tucker will attend the University of Tampa beginning in the fall. She plans to study forensic science. She found out in the spring that the Cooke Foundation will be paying for her college education, too.
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