For someone who was afraid of fund-raising, Janice Windle has raised a lot of money. Or as she would put it, she and a lot of other people did. The president of the El Paso Community Foundation is reluctant to say "I."

In its first year, the foundation raised $90,000. This year, it raised more than $14 million. But Windle won’t be remembered years hence for the amount of money she raised but for the projects she undertook: Water for poor families living in border colonias, the Spirit of Giving Catalog and the $23 million restoration of the Plaza Theatre. 

Most of all, the foundation under Windle has enabled individuals to set up funds to support the things they love or would love to see in El Paso. 

For 31 years of working to improve the quality of life in El Paso, for saving the Plaza Theatre from becoming a parking lot, for adding a critical piece to the city’s Downtown redevelopment, and for showing El Pasoans how they can help make their hometown a better place, Janice Windle is El Paso Inc.’s 2008 El Pasoan of the Year.

Windle was born 70 years ago in the little town of Seguin, about 35 miles east of San Antonio. She attended the University of Texas at Austin, where she met her husband Wayne, an attorney. They moved to El Paso in 1961, where she raised their children and then went to the University of Texas at El Paso to complete her degree in Political Science. 

In 1973 she was hired by then-mayor Fred Hervey to oversee the city’s bicentennial celebration in 1976. After the celebrations, she found her true avocation in philanthropy as community leaders created the El Paso Community Foundation.

Windle also won some fame as an author, writing five books, including “True Women,” that was made into a CBS mini-series.

Now Windle will step aside as president and take on the title of president emeritus. She will be replaced by Virginia Martinez, currently the executive vice president. Windle, though, will not be retiring. She says she will be helping with fund-raising.

Q. How would you describe the work you do?

What you need to understand about the kind of work I do is that it’s never work that one person does alone. There are always other El Pasoans working together, and that’s the beauty of the job I have. Bringing people together is central to the work I do. So I don’t want to take credit for anything because you never do anything alone.

Q. How do you bring people together?

The foundation has the unique capacity to take almost anything the human heart can dream for El Paso and make it a reality. The structure of a community foundation gives me the opportunity to say to people, “Let’s all sit down at the foundation offices and figure out a way to make these things happen.” 

Q. What was your career before 1973?

My husband and I went to school at UT-Austin. He went to the University of Texas Law School, and I quit my political science studies and worked in the Texas Legislature as a personal assistant to state Rep. George McCoppin (a Texarkana Democrat who served in the Texas House from 1957 to 1963).

It was a great learning experience. In those days, the assistant to the representative sat next to that person on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives. You weren’t even in a separate building. You were right there next to the person, except when he would go out of town, and he would say to me, “Be sure to answer ‘present’ for me and vote. I was terribly young and naive. I didn’t realize you weren’t supposed to do that – voting for somebody. And I could run all those switches with the voting lights: Yes, no, present. I got to be a state representative when he went home early. He didn’t like to stay all week. He would head home and tell me how to vote on things. 

Wayne had a little business called Night Bite, and in the evenings as soon as we got home we would take loaves of bread, spread them out and make a whole lot of sandwiches. About 10:30 we would go to the dorms at UT. I would drive the car. Wayne would go to the intercom and say, “Night Bite, Night Bite,” and the students would come down and buy the sandwiches. And we would have money to pay our rent. It helped us survive his going through law school.

Q. What was your first involvement in the civic life of El Paso?

From 1973-1976, I headed up the city’s Bicentennial Program, which was a magnificent experience because Americans were highly emotional about that celebration, and a lot of wonderful things happened.

I wondered what I would do when the bicentennial celebration was over, and then I read in the Junior League bulletin that a group of civic leaders were going to create a community foundation. The idea came from lawyers and others who did estate planning and had seen a lot of money flowing out of El Paso. They were excited because they saw the foundation as a way of keeping money made in El Paso in El Paso.

Q. What was your biggest challenge getting started?

I didn’t hear them say in the interview that fund-raising was a big part of the job, or I would have been scared to death. When I found out that I was supposed to raise a lot of money, I thought maybe this has been a mistake.

I told my husband that it was too embarrassing to ask people for money. He said it was like doctors and blood; you’ll get over it. 

There is a moment of epiphany in this business when you realize that you’re not asking for yourself; that you are asking for all of the people who live in your community. When you are asking people for money, you are empowering them. You are making them capable of showing how much they love their hometown.

Q. So you’ve gotten over that?

Our first year we raised $90,000. This year has been an epic year. We have raised a stunning amount of money considering the circumstances – $14,794,633. Our combined charitable funds are $91.8 million. And over the years, while we were raising that money, we also raised and spent on community projects $88 million. Our funds include 400 individual funds with peoples’ names on them.

Q. How do you raise that much money?

I may ask someone, a successful businessman, say, “Why not start a fund in your name for $1,000 with a goal to build it up to $10,000? You can tell us how to use that fund — scholarships to your alma mater.” We have about 400 of those funds. We don’t spend that corpus. That corpus spins off money to be given away in grants. I ask you for that money today for that fund. But I might go tomorrow and say to you, “We are going to have a wonderful film festival at the Plaza Theatre, and we need to get $180,000 of underwriting so we are asking a whole lot of people to give $250 each. Would you be willing to give $250?”

I didn’t take any money from your fund. Instead I have two parallel strategies of fundraising at the same time. One is to create a permanent fund. Another is to raise money and give it back immediately.

Q. How did the Plaza Theatre project come together?

It was a 20-year up-and-down, on-and-off rugged, rugged project. We partnered with the city of El Paso. It was a great partnership. There were no great wars or divorces or lawsuits. But getting the authorization to proceed with the Plaza was extremely difficult. And one of things that handicapped the whole project was that mayors at that time only served for two years.

You would get the project up and going. First of all you had to find a mayor that supported it. That was not easy. Then you would work to get a plan together and just about the time you would get that going, the mayor would run for re-election and get defeated, usually by someone who was lukewarm on the idea. So it switched back and forth, on and off. Finally we developed a methodology to get it done, and that was to get a long-term contract.

The foundation took a real derring-do risk to get the $23 million to make it happen and still throughout all this maintain its regular programs of giving away money for good projects and talking with potential donors about supporting the foundation.

We had an economic development study done that said if we went through with the restoration of this theater and made it a full performing-arts venue, we wouldn’t recognize it in four years.

Well, little did we know that the largest publicly traded company in El Paso, Western Refining Inc., would buy the next-door building, and put its headquarters there. And little did we know that Paul Foster (the president/CEO of Western Refining Inc.), who is a real visionary, would buy the old Plaza Hotel and the Mills Building, the Jack in the Box block, and build a fantastic parking facility. So all of those economic projections that were so high risk at the time are being borne out in spades. 

It was a highly emotional outpouring from the people of El Paso. More than 15,000 people made contributions to keep the theater from being demolished.

We named one theater in the Plaza the Philanthropy Theatre because the word is the same in English and Spanish, and because we were trying to call attention to hometown-loving people for whom the Community Foundation was a perfect way to give something back. And we put the names of the people with permanent funds on the curved wall. 

Q. That was a huge project. What sorts of projects did you do in the foundation’s early days?

In 1987, the Ford Foundation made a $1 million matching grant to create a loan fund to help put in water systems for the colonias. We have neighborhoods along the U.S.-Mexico border that don’t have water or sewage. With the fund that we and the Ford Foundation were able to set up, people who live in very low-income, remote, rural neighborhoods along the border are able to get loans to bring the water and sewer pipes from the water authority’s line up to their houses.

Q. How did the Spirit of Giving catalog come about?

We wanted a project that would make the foundation a household word and demonstrate what it’s all about.

The Neiman Marcus Catalog arrived and we were looking at it at the office. It is beautiful and really fun to look at, but it is about blatant, self-centered materialism. We were asking ourselves what can we do that would be about giving back to other human beings.

Well, we came up with the idea of a giving catalog. It’s called the Spirit of Giving catalog. It is released the weekend of Thanksgiving. It carries lists of the things that non-profit organizations need. That was 25 years ago. This year, in connection with Spirit of Giving, we had a booth at the Junior League Christmas Fair that raised over $20,000 for a park for handicapped children, Hospital Familia and for the families of the Third 133rd Texas National Guard. Most of the money came in $5 and $10 contributions. El Paso may be a poor city, but it is one of the most loving and giving cities anywhere.

Q. You are also a writer. How did you start out on that path?

Right after my dad died, my mother, who lived at the time in my hometown of Seguin, and I decided we would put together a family cookbook as a wedding present for my oldest son, Wayne. I said, Mother, you’ve been telling all these great stories about women in the family since the Texas revolution. I’m going to write some of those up and put them in the cookbook. 

At the rehearsal, one of the bridesmaids read aloud one of the stories, and I could see the expressions on the young people’s faces that they were way more interested in the story than in the recipe for the food.

Q. Why did you write a novel rather than a history?

I was scared to death of Texas historians who footnote everything. Texas historians like for you to take an event in Texas history and flesh it out based on all the documents that are there.

Well, when a woman is fleeing for her life because her husband has gone with Sam Houston, and she has little children with her and she is very pregnant and she has elderly relatives, and she’s with hundreds of other women, and they are fleeing back to the border of the United States — those incidents happened to her and nobody wrote any of that down. 

But that woman told her daughter, who told my mother, who told me. I skipped a generation in there because it was my mother’s great aunt. So very close to the event and a first-person source. So if I was going to tell the story I was going to have to use oral history.

When you say he said, she said or she felt, then it turns into a novel. If you say she stood on the corner of Mesa and Main, that’s nonfiction. The minute you have emotion, love, caring, hatred and speculation about what a person said or thought, then it becomes a novel.

Q. Is there anything you can do to help the situation in Juarez?

I think the main thing the Community Foundation can do to help is to encourage the people who live in Mexico to deal with their government and to find ways to start a dialogue that will bring about a civil society. It is going to have to come from them. It can’t be imposed by the United States. There are many fine people there working on a solution to the problem.

 

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