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Michael Benedum's fortune keeps paying dividends

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By JAMES E. CASTO
For The State Journal

During his lifetime in the oil and gas business, Clarksburg native Michael Benedum, known as "The Great Wildcatter," amassed a fortune, ranking him in his day as one of the 100 wealthiest Americans. But today he's best remembered not for how he earned his fortune, but for what he did with it — he gave it away. 

Benedum and his wife Sarah had only one child, Claude Worthington Benedum, who died at age 20. Like more than 500,000 other Americans, the young Benedum was a victim of the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918. 

In 1944, Benedum and his wife established the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, named in their son's memory. When Michael Benedum died in 1959, half of his estate of $100 million went to the foundation. Before her death in 1951, Sarah Benedum contributed millions of dollars more to the foundation. 

In his will, Michael Benedum wrote: "Life has been sweet to me. … I could not leave this earth with any degree of happiness or satisfaction if I felt that I had not tried to bring some of these joys to those less fortunate than I have been." 

Today, the Benedum Foundation, which next year will mark its 70th anniversary, is the largest philanthropic foundation contributing primarily to West Virginia organizations. 

In its long history, the foundation has authorized a total of more than $410 million in grants. At the end of 2012, the market value of its holdings, including cash, was put at $343.5 million. 

In 1907, after his first major oil discovery, Benedum moved his business headquarters and home to Pittsburgh, where he lived for more than 50 years. When he established the foundation in 1944, he was determined to aid both his native state of West Virginia and his adopted state of Pennsylvania. 

In keeping with Benedum's wishes, the foundation generally invests two-thirds of its grant dollars in West Virginia and one third in southwestern Pennsylvania, which includes Pittsburgh, where the foundation is headquartered. 

The foundation makes grants in two program areas that span both states: education and economic development. In addition, the foundation supports community development and health/human services grants in West Virginia as well as various performing arts groups in Pennsylvania. 

In 2012, the foundation awarded 150 grants, totaling $14.7 million. Grants the foundation awards may range in size from hundreds of thousands of dollars down to a few thousand.

For instance, in 2012 the West Virginia University Foundation received eight grants totaling nearly $800,000 for a number of projects involving education, economic development and health care. At the other end of the scale, the foundation awarded $15,000 to the Huntington Area Food Bank so it could restock its food inventory that had been depleted as a result of July 2012 storms in West Virginia. 

In June of this year, the foundation's board of Trustees elected former West Virginia Sen. Lloyd G. Jackson II of Hamlin as board chairman. He succeeded Paul G. Benedum, who had served as chairman for 22 years. 

Jackson is one of four West Virginians who serve on the nine-member board. The other three West Virginians are Thomas A. Heywood of Charleston, Parween S. Mascari of Morgantown and Dr. Robert Walker of Huntington. In addition, Ralph J. Bean Jr. of Bridgeport, L. Newton Thomas of Charleston and G. Randolph Worls of Wheeling are trustees emereriti. The board has designated former Gov. Gaston Caperton an honorary trustee. 

For details about the Benedum Foundation, visit www.benedum.org.

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The Foundation's assets totaled more than $348 million at the end of 2012.

The Foundation board includes nine members: one family member, four members from West Virginia and four from Southwestern Pennsylvania.

The Foundation's geographic focus is on West Virginia and Southwestern Pennsylvania. Generally, no grants are made to organizations out of the regions.