The Early Years: The American Foundation (part one of a 8-part series)

This eight-week blog series will delve deeper into the history of Bok Tower Gardens and provide a rich historical accounting of the early days. The source document is from a collection of statements entitled “Its Origin, Meaning, and Purpose” created by The American Foundation, Inc.

This selection was written in 1998 by longtime board member William G. Nagel documenting his years of knowledge about the formation of Bok Tower Gardens. His source material is documented in the excerpt of his letter dated November 28, 1998, provided below:

“A lot of it has been distilled from many contacts with Bok family members like William Curtis Bok and Nellie Lee Bok both of whom are only one generation removed from Edward Bok. I also refreshed myself by scanning minutes and financial records back to 1925.”

Birth of a Foundation
On April 29, 1925, the wife of Edward Bok, their son, and three associates of the family took oaths as members of the first Board of Directors of the newly created American Foundation Inc., later the American Foundation Incorporated, and still later named the Bok Tower Gardens Foundation. Their oath pledged them to serve until death, or until infirmities rendered them unable to serve, and they did.

The Foundation was to be the “conduit for funding Edward Bok’s various interests.” These included the American Peace Award, the Philadelphia Award, the Citizens Awards, and the Harvard Advertising Awards. On May 16, 1925, eighteen days after the Foundation’s organizational meeting, the Foundation accepting a gift of land known as the Mountain Lake Sanctuary.

Better or More Beautiful
Edward Bok often attributed to his grandmother the mandate which dominated his life. “Make you the world better or more beautiful because you have lived in it.” In his autobiography, Bok state unequivocally that “No man has the right to leave the world no better than he found it.”

World Peace
Long before the creation of the American Foundation, he tried, in numerous ways to make the world better because he had lived in it. Articles and editorials in the Ladies’ Home Journal spoke to many social concerns – woman’s suffrage, wildlife conservation, clean cities and towns, food and drug control, and in spite of the taboos mentioning the “v” word, he carried out an expose of venereal disease. Prime among his interests was world peace.

Following the bloodshed and devastation of World War I, which he witnessed personally, Bok was zealous in his efforts to find peaceful solutions to differences among nations. He was an avid supporter of the League of Nations which President Wilson had proposed. He used his pen, money, and his indefatigable girl Friday, Esther Lape, in an effort to get his beloved America to join it, but was defeated by an isolationist Senate. His next initiative was a contest to come up with some methodology that might reduce the possibility of war.

The winner of that contest, Charles Levermore, won Bok’s $100,000 American Peace Award. His proposal had two components: (a) immediate adherence of the United States to the Permanent Court of International Justice, (b) adherence of the United States to the League of Nations, not as a super-government, but “as an instrument of mutual counsel.”

The Foundation, under the leadership of its project chairperson, Elihu Root, a former Secretary of State, and Esther Lape worked energetically to develop the public support that would lead to the realization of these two goals. During this era of concern about world peace, the Foundation, under Lape’s associate, Elizabeth Read, attempted to improve the teaching of international law in our universities and law schools.

In that effort, the American Foundation published two influential volumes: International Law and International Relations both penned by Read. The peace efforts were terminated in 1935 when the federal tax authorities decreed that such activities were “political” rather than educational and, therefore, not within the province of a tax-exempt organization.

Our blog posting next week will explore the efforts by the American Foundation to improve medicine, award citizens, and improve access to education.