The Early Years: The American Foundation (part 4 of an 8-part series)

This eight-week blog series delves deeper into the history of Bok Tower Gardens and provides 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. You can read the First Installment, Second Installment, and Third Installment at Blog Tower Gardens.

Written by The American Foundation’s President William G. Nagel, the fourth section references and provides a pivotal memorandum written by Edward Bok’s son William Curtis Bok in 1961. This memorandum was an introduction to a lengthier piece he entitled “The Origin of the Singing Tower” that can be read here.

More Beautiful
It might be important that I share my intimate knowledge of a few matters which reach to the Foundation’s soul. I could do this by drawing from my interaction with Nellie Lee Bok and other family members and friends. But more useful is a memorandum written by Edward Bok’s son, William Curtis Bok, on March 13, 1961, just prior to his premature death. It is often referred to as his “last will and testament.” It became my beacon during my thirteen years of leadership. Its impact was so powerful upon me that it persuaded me, when a financial crisis stuck, to recommend closing down the Foundation’s “make the world better program” which I was hired to operate. It is my belief that every board member and employee should be familiar with what it says. Its enjoinders should be central to the mindset of every board member and employee. As the Constitution of our nation, it must be a living document subject to evolutionary adjustments, but it should not be subjected to easy or frivolous change.

Memorandum by Curtis Bok
I am in the mood to leave a few testamentary memoranda about some of the family things in which I am interested. I have done so with regard to the Philadelphia Award, and someday I expect to do so with regard to the Curtis Institute of Music.

I now want to turn my attention to the American Foundation, and I enclose a piece about the Sanctuary and Tower. This was not written as an artistic effort but to counteract two erroneous ideas about the Florida establishment and about Edward Bok’s intentions, as my mother and I know them. I have sent this piece to the Club at Lake Wales for such distribution as they may care to make of it in order to combat the notion that the Sanctuary was created by my father as a memorial to himself and the Tower as a monumental headstone. This idea arises more frequently than one would imagine, and the enclosed memorandum speaks for itself in contradicting it: so does the booklet that is sold in the Sanctuary. I have also encountered the misconception that my father regarded the “idea department” of The Foundation – the part that concerned itself with the World Court, the recognition of Russia, and with medicine – as more important and significant than the Sanctuary.

I do not believe this and intend this memorandum to stand between such misconception and the future. It gives the facts over Edward Bok’s signature and proves my point: it also proves the recollection of my mother and myself of what my father said to her and me.

If any man had a leitmotif, or theme song, for his life, as it was in my father’s case, the aphorism of his grandmother to “make the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it.” My father’s writings, set forth in the Sanctuary and Tower rest upon the idea that they are a continuation of his grandfather’s work on the island of Texel and a confirmation of his grandmother’s admonition.

Each day I grow older the more convinced I am that the Florida establishment is the greatest idea my father ever had, the more lasting, and the most significant. All others that he had, but one (The Philadelphia Award, which is a special case), have ceased, for one reason or another: The American Peace Award, The World Court, his editorship, The Philadelphia Forum, his endowment and work for the Philadelphia Orchestra, his minor awards, and his books. His Sanctuary, a pure gift to the American people without a hint that in visiting it they would in any way become a captive audience, is unique among his ideas.

It was not built as a church, a theater, a school, a forum, or a platform. It was built as a bird sanctuary and in dedication to the repose of the human spirit. My action in refusing it to Evangelist Billy Graham for the Easter Service in 1961 brought us letters of almost unanimous approval from the public. And since an average of half a million people visit the property each year, I point to them as proof of my father’s rare perception of what the public needs and wants.

In short, I enjoin those who follow me from changing the essential character of the Sanctuary, from introducing projects of any kind save the music of the bells and the Easter Sunrise Service as conducted by the people local to the community in Lake Wales, and from considering any activity of The American Foundation, present or contemplated, as of greater importance. The Sanctuary shall have the first call on the funds of the Foundation, and only what is leftover may be spent on other projects.

William Curtis Bok
March 13, 1961