It was six years ago when Sarasota Scene first got to know Drs. Richard Wharton and Lou Bertha McKenzie-Wharton. At that time, they were recognized for helping provide scholarships to the first 100 freshmen from local schools to attend USF Sarasota-Manatee because they “recognized the relationship between education and such factors as socio-economic success.” Their goal as former educators was to invest in students who might one day contribute their talents to the greater good. Mission accomplished and to be continued.
It’s easy to see where they learned about philanthropy. Dr. McKenzie-Wharton’s mother—Mrs. Myrtle A. McKenzie, though she also went by Mrs. Joseph L. McKenzie—participated in 45 Chicago, IL organizations. She became president in over 70% of the organizations she served in and an officer in the rest. Dr. McKenzie-Wharton’s father, Attorney Joseph L. McKenzie, had his own private practice and law firm and died when she was 19. “He served as president of four different clubs,” she explains, “and they asked my mother to take over when he died. So, she did, along with her other activities. She became such a well-known civic leader that we sometimes got mail with no address—just her name on it.”
Until she was 30, Dr. McKenzie-Wharton lived with her mother and witnessed the whirlwind of civic activity. “I saw her leadership activities. I understood her mission, and what she wanted to do.” Her mother’s influence continued when Dr. McKenzie-Wharton went to Columbia University to get her doctorate in educational administration and she fell in love with Dr. Wharton, who was earning his own doctorate in the same field.
“I told my mother that I’d like to finish my dissertation before getting married,” Dr. McKenzie-Wharton says. “She told me, ‘If you’re so smart, you can get married first and do your dissertation later.’ And that’s what happened.” They got married six months later, honeymooned for six weeks in Europe and Africa, and then came back and completed their dissertations and graduated within a year.
Qui Transtulit Sustinet (He Who Transplanted Still Sustains)
After almost 20 years in Connecticut where they were heavily involved in educational administration and community work, Drs. Wharton built a vacation home in Sarasota in 1991 and built a second home and retired to Lakewood Ranch in 2002. Dr. McKenzie-Wharton soon became involved with the Women’s Council of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Sarasota County and worked with Goodwill Manasota Ambassadors, along with one of their sons. Philanthropy was a family affair!
Additionally, she served as president, vice president, secretary, and board member for the Glasser/Schoenbaum Human Services Center, a board member for the New College Foundation, and a board member of the Library Foundation of Sarasota County, to name just a few of the many things she’s done to invest in the future.
Dr. Wharton did his own part, too, by serving on the Board of Advisors for Lakewood Ranch Community Fund, serving on the Board of Directors for Goodwill Manasota, and becoming a member of USF Sarasota-Manatee Community Leadership Committee, in addition to a host of other community-focused things.
Through these efforts, they both got to know and trust the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Dr. McKenzie-Wharton says, “We actively started working with them a year ago when we had the dream of celebrating our anniversary in a special way.” With the Community Foundation’s help, The Wharton and McKenzie-Wharton Family Foundation was created to be a vehicle through which they could participate in community and philanthropic activities on a more unified and consistent manner.
The Gold Standard
Here’s the best part of their five-decade love story. When they celebrated their 50th anniversary at Lakewood Ranch Golf and Country Club on December 17, 2022, in lieu of receiving gifts, they asked attendees to instead make donations to their family foundation. Dr. Wharton adds, “We told them we’d match those gifts, and that contributors would receive a letter from the Community Foundation of Sarasota County acknowledging their donation for tax purposes. We also sent personal thank you notes to them.”
Of their friends and family, 97% of those who attended chose to donate. “The Community Foundation staff was not only helpful in keeping track of the donations that we received, but they also answered any and all questions that our potential donors had,” says Dr. McKenzie-Wharton. “They’ve been helping us every step of the way. They’re wonderful partners.”
In the ballroom at the celebration, Dr. McKenzie-Wharton had 14 bulletin boards that chronicled experiences and events that happened during their 20-year retirement in Florida so people who chose not to dance would have something to look at. “We posted a copy of our original wedding invitation and pictures, and photos of our travels. Another bulletin board was for Richard’s father, The Honorable Clifton R. Wharton, Sr. (39+ year career), who had a U.S. Commemorative Stamp created in his honor. He was the first African American to pass the U.S. Foreign Service Officer’s Exam, and the first African American to become a U.S. Ambassador to a Western European country (Norway). Other bulletin boards provided information about the advisory boards as well as boards and organization groups we’d served on,” she says, “but it also included the Sarasota Scene article you wrote.”
While that’s a pretty amazing coincidence, it’s not hard to see why both Drs. Wharton continue to find ways to invest in the future. Through them and their efforts, Myrtle A. McKenzie is still influencing lives today.
“By listening to her, it’s made me more open to listening to others about how you can make a difference,” admits Dr. McKenzie-Wharton. “She helped in every way. She taught me to ask the right questions. How can we best serve? How can we make society better?”
Dr. Wharton puts it plainly. “We go where our help is needed. That’s it. That’s what we do.”
To see the story as it originally appeared online in Sarasota Scene Magazine in March 2023, click here.