Charles Edward Marsh landed his first job in 1909, as a $25-a-week rookie reporter for a small Oklahoma newspaper. A born entrepreneur, he scraped together $2,500, partnered with brothers E.S. and Charles E. Fentress and built the Marsh-Fentress newspaper chain.
As his fortune swelled, he retained strong populist views. While living in Austin, where he owned the Austin American-Statesman, he backed reform candidates for local and state offices and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s bid for the Presidency in 1932.
In 1936, he met a young Texas congressman named Lyndon Baines Johnson, who became a lifelong friend and beneficiary of his financial and political support. In 1938, Johnson obtained a U.S. visa for another Marsh protege, Erich Leinsdorf, a young Austrian Jewish composer and conductor fleeing the Nazis. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Leinsdorf enjoyed a long, illustrious career leading, among others, the Metropolitan Opera of New York, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Israeli Philharmonic and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra.
During the Roosevelt era, Marsh moved from Texas to a mansion off Washington’s DuPont Circle and an estate in the Virginia hunt country. He entertained a parade of influential political and intellectual figures, from Vice President Henry Wallace and Senator Claude Pepper of Roosevelt’s New Deal brain trust to authors Erich Maria Remarque and Roald Dahl. A restless and adventurous soul, after the war, Marsh traveled the world, often with Dahl and his wife Patricia Neal, the actress.
Marsh often told his children that he meant to die broke and delighted in casually giving sums of money to those in need, a habit that inspired the 1950’s television series, The Millionaire. In 1947, he made a formal commitment to philanthropy by incorporating the Public Welfare Foundation and designating it to receive his newspapers’ assets upon his death. He deliberately chose a vague name to allow the Foundation to evolve with the times. According to Anonymous Giver, a biography of Marsh by Philip Kopper, Marsh wrote that “public welfare” was “a pretty wide pair of words,” by which he intended the Foundation to involve itself in “any activity which would promote the well-being and happiness of human beings.” A document drafted at the time, according to Kopper, declared that the Foundation would make “gifts for education, charitable or benevolent uses in accordance with a plan which shall meet the changing need for such gifts with flexibility….”
The Foundation’s first grant was made in 1948 – 28 sewing machines for an organization of Jamaican women, so that the island’s poor children could be clothed and sent to school. Marsh saw to it that the Foundation followed up with funding for scholarships and occupational training, medical equipment, clinics and – ahead of the times – micro-loans for fishermen. As the Foundation grew, Marsh built a network of “agents” assigned to find worthwhile recipients: among them, according to Kopper, the young Indira Gandhi, Mother Teresa and the playwright Noel Coward.
Marsh oversaw the Foundation’s work until his health began to decline in 1953. He died in 1964. Claudia Haines Marsh, his third wife, was the Foundation’s president from 1952 to 1974, and she remained a guiding influence until her own death, at the age of 100, in the year 2000.