Betty Brown Casey, Washington philanthropist, dies at 95

Betty Brown Casey, a quiet but influential force in Washington philanthropy who inherited a fortune from her husband, survived a mysterious car bombing and later donated tens of millions of dollars to hospitals, schools and civic groups, helping plant thousands of trees and continuing to play music at the Washington National Opera, died Aug. 17 at her home in Potomac, Maryland. She was 95 years old.

Her death was confirmed by her attorney, Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., who said she was in poor health but did not give a specific cause.

Ms Casey was deeply private and eschewed interviews, preferring to stay behind the scenes while donating to organizations including the Salvation Army and Washington public broadcaster WETA. “I don’t like getting up in front of groups. … I like the quiet life,” she once said.

Yet she made headlines for ambitious but unfinished projects that promised to transform the city, including a plan to spend $50 million of her own money to build an official residence for DC’s mayor, and a proposal to revitalize downtown with a new home for the Washington National Opera, which named her president for life in 1999. That same year, she read a Washington Post article about declining tree cover in the nation’s capital and decided to get involved in the issue.

Ms Casey then donated $100million – including an initial $50million donation to the Garden Club of America – to support what is now Casey Trees, a nonprofit that plants and cares for trees in Washington. The group has planted more than 41,000 trees in the city, according to spokeswoman Italia Peretti, including many saplings that were grown on Ms. Casey’s 730-acre farm along the Shenandoah River in Berryville, New York. Virginie, which she also donated to the organization.

A former psychiatric social worker, Ms. Casey was married for 31 years to Eugene B. Casey, a developer and investor who served as an agricultural adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He built strip malls, apartment buildings, and low-cost housing in the Rockville and Gaithersburg area, earning a reputation as a bright but parsimonious executive with a dominating style, both in the office and at home. To friends, he bragged that he made 95% of the decisions in his marriage and told Ms Casey how to handle the rest.

At the time of his death in 1986, his fortune was estimated at over $200 million. Half of his estate went to Mrs. Casey. Most of the other half went to her foundation, which Ms. Casey had taken an active role in running. Over the years, she has ensured that her husband is memorialized on behalf of a hospice in Rockville, a diabetes education center in Bethesda, and academic and swimming centers at Washington College, her alma mater. on the east coast of Maryland.

While many of her donations were made in her husband’s name, the wealth attracted unwanted attention. In 1990, a pipe bomb exploded in the trunk of her white Mercedes 560 as she was driving home to Potomac from a shopping spree in Washington. The rear of the car was heavily damaged, but no one was seriously injured. Ms Casey was cut in the face and her secretary, who was driving the car, suffered minor injuries to the hand, according to a Washington Post report.

Investigators determined the explosion was triggered by a Sears garage door opener that had been taped to the side of the bomb. William H. Seals, a veteran of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, compared the explosive to the type of weapon used “in professional hits in places like Las Vegas.”

“Whoever put it there didn’t realize how well built a Mercedes is,” he said. Washington City Paper in 2004. “If she had been in a Cadillac, she would have died, there is no doubt about that.”

The case was never solved and investigators complained that Ms Casey and her family were uncooperative. She told detectives she could not imagine who might want to kill her, according to ATF reports, although some family members scoffed at the claim, noting that she had alienated relatives by inheriting of a large part of her late husband’s estate. “Who would want him dead? Just open the phone book and start with A,” an unnamed parent said in 1992.

Ms Casey was sued that year by 10 of her husband’s 11 grandchildren, who argued she had manipulated Eugene Casey into excluding them from her will, which left $1million each for her six children, all from previous marriages. She hired Sullivan, who had represented Oliver L. North in the Iran-Contra hearings, and prevailed in court.

The trial offered rare insight into her personal life and views on philanthropy, with Ms Casey testifying that she only became involved in her husband’s work reluctantly in the 1980s. not business. … My husband told me that you had to be tough … and people, even if they were friends, to know that you were tough and you were strong,” she said. “And he was right.”

The eldest of three daughters, Betty Brown was born in Sykesville, Maryland on April 27, 1927, and grew up in a rural area of ​​Carroll County where many homes lacked electricity. She is survived by her two sisters, but further information about the survivors was not immediately available.

Ms. Casey never spoke publicly about her childhood, but an acquaintance once told the Post that her father drove long-distance trucks and then taxis in Baltimore. Her mother was a mother to nurses and later worked in a psychiatric hospital.

Ms. Casey won a scholarship to Washington College in Chestertown, where she studied biology and psychology. After graduating in 1947, she worked for eight years at Rosewood State Training School, an institution outside Baltimore for the mentally handicapped. She also studied at Catholic University for a master’s degree in psychiatric social work, and for a time lived with a cousin whose husband was the superintendent of Eugene Casey’s farm in Gaithersburg.

The Phantom Patron of the Opera: Betty Brown Casey’s Journey from Sykesville to Washington

It was there, apparently, that she met her future husband, whom she married in 1955 after her two previous marriages ended in divorce. He was 24 years her senior, once nominated as a potential Senate candidate before being convicted of federal tax evasion in 1947. He was pardoned by President Harry S. Truman but was again entangled in scandal in the 1970s, when he was the self-described leader in a Marlboro Race Track program to enrich supporters of Maryland Governor Marvin Mandel. (He was never charged with a crime.)

But clearly Mrs. Casey was far more interested in music than her husband’s business. She has served on the board of the Washington National Opera since 1974, when the society was known as the Opera Society of Washington, and she donated $18 million to the society in 1996 so that it could buy the old Woodward & Lothrop department store building to use. like his new home.

The 10-story building was purchased at a bankruptcy auction, and the architectural firm of IM Pei was hired to overhaul the space. But the plan proved too expensive, with renovations estimated at $200 million. The opera company signed a new lease at the Kennedy Center, and the building sat vacant until 1999, when it was sold for $28 million.

The proceeds went to the opera company’s once meager endowment, which was later named after Ms Casey’s late husband. In 2010, the year before the opera company merged with the Kennedy Center, its donations made up “between one-half and two-thirds” of the total endowment, according to a Wall Street Journal. report.

“She contributed significantly for many years, generously donating millions of dollars to the organization,” said Francesca Zambello, artistic director of the company. “She cared passionately about opera and was very civic-minded, believing in the importance of the Washington National Opera having its own identity. She was also extremely committed to diversity,” asking if there could “be more people of color in the productions” and “more collaborations” with Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a Washington public school.

After the Woodward & Lothrop project, Ms. Casey was involved in another high-profile real estate deal in 2001, when she bought a 16.5-acre estate in the Tony Foxhall neighborhood of Washington and announced she wanted to make a permanent residence for the mayor, with a view to hosting official functions and hosting visiting dignitaries. District officials were already considering the idea of ​​an official residence, and while they had considered something closer to downtown, it was hard to resist the offer of a free mansion from the mayor.

The project has proven deeply divisive, with naysayers bristling at the idea of ​​DC’s mayor living in a lavishly decorated home – Ms. Casey reportedly bought $2million worth of furniture and fixtures before the mansion was designed – in one of the wealthiest areas of the city. Ms Casey battled with neighbors, city officials and the National Park Service before abandoning her plan in late 2003. Instead of building a mansion on the property, she donated the land to the Army of Hi.

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