The resignation this week of American Red Cross President Marsha Evans stirred up old complaints and doubts about the charity. The former Navy rear admiral was the fourth Red Cross head in six years to walk. The failure of the organization’s Louisiana and Mississippi chapters to get relief to the victims of hurricane Katrina again raised questions about the ability of any Red Cross president to administer effectively. With a huge board that appears incapable of organizing operations or of trusting the top officers it appoints, the Red Cross’s structural weakness was illuminated in a blaze of news coverage. Before another major disaster strikes, the charity that collects more money than any other needs top-to-bottom evaluation.
In the story of the money Paul Desmond left it, there is a small indication of the obtuseness of the organization’s leadership. He designated the Red Cross his principal beneficiary. Over the years, Desmond’s executor, Noel Silverman, has sent the American Red Cross, in $25,000 increments, the royalties from “Take Five,” “Wendy,” Paul’s other compositions and his recordings under his own name. Desmond died in 1977. A quarter of a century later, Silverman had never received more than pro forma thanks to the estate. Here’s part of the story, from Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond.
“For 25 years,” he (Silverman) said, “they just collected money and collected money and once in a while I got an acknowledgment that obviously bore no relation to the size of the gift, the extent of the gift or any awareness of who Paul Desmond was.”
On August 12, 2002, Silverman wrote a letter to J. Logan Seitz, senior vice president of the American Red Cross, giving him the background of the legacy, outlining Desmond’s career and prominence and informing him that the total contribution now was more than three million dollars.
This was the final paragraph of the letter:
It is easy to accuse the Red Cross of ingratitude. I suspect that that may be less than accurate. It may simply be that the organization is poorly run, badly mannered, or understandably not concerned with gifts which are not dependent on whether or not they are acknowledged. Come to think of it, organizational ungraciousness may not be such a bad description after all.
Weeks went by during which Silverman received another impersonal, misaddressed form letter acknowledging a $75,000 installment, and then yet another robotic form letter. At last, a meeting with a living, breathing Red Cross officer led to improvement.
Finally, the Red Cross informed Silverman that at the annual dinner dance of the organization in New York, Desmond would be honored with a posthumous tribute. On April 8, 2003, Silverman accepted the honor in Paul’s memory. He announced at the banquet that Desmond’s total contribution to the Red Cross had reached four-million dollars and was growing.
The bequest now approaches five-million dollars. In the light of recent events, it is impossible not to wonder how efficiently Paul’s legacy is being used.