It all began with the birth of Rosamond Gifford on September 15, 1873 (though it should be noted that Ms. Gifford consistently shaved about ten years off of her age – her tombstone records her birth date as April 15, 1882). Rosamond was the daughter of William H. Gifford and Mary Augusta Skinner. William H. Gifford was a well-known attorney in Syracuse and a former District Attorney.
Rosamond Gifford’s young life was something out of a Henry James novel. She spent her time split between her father’s house on West Onondaga Street and her mother’s family property in Tully. As a teenager, Rosamond was sent off to a boarding school in Wellesley, Massachusetts. There she met an older man who called himself Fred LaFayette, but whose real name was LaJeunesse. LaJeunesse was a professional railroad gambler. They lived together for a time and, in 1895, when Rosamond was twenty-two, she married Fred. To add further intrigue, she married under the assumed name “Violette LaVigne.” The marriage didn’t work out and she divorced Mr. LaFayette in 1900, taking back the name of Gifford.
In approximately 1904, at her father’s urging, Rosamond moved to Boston to study the harp, returning briefly in 1912 when her mother became ill and passed away. Even though her mother left the Tully property and the rest of her estate to her daughter, Rosamond returned to Boston in January of 1913 with plans to sell the property. However in May of 1913 she was convinced by her father to give up her dream of becoming a harpist when William promised to give Rosamond his entire estate outright if she agreed to live on and care for her father’s farm on Thompson Road for the balance of his life. The agreement was drafted as a legal document, was signed, and witnessed.
On May 2, 1917 William Gifford died leaving an estate in the extraordinary sum of $1.25 million. Unbeknownst to Rosamond, William had signed a will in 1915 giving his estate in trust for ten years to the Trust and Deposit Company of Onondaga. Rosamond contested the Will based on the agreement that her father entered into with her. She had kept her promise to take care of his farm on Thompson Road and she expected the agreement her father made with her to be honored. After several years of litigation, the Onondaga County Surrogate’s Court decided in Rosamond’s favor. The entire estate would pass to Rosamond Gifford outright.
By the time Rosamond inherited her father’s estate, it had grown to $1.4 million. An article in the November 23, 1920 Syracuse Herald provides one of the few insights into Rosamond’s thinking about wealth and charity:
“Do you know that since Dad died, I have probably had 1,000 or 2,000 letters and that practically all of them have asked for money? These letters are practically all begging letters. They ask for all kinds of sums from $.35 to $100,000. I could have given away every penny that my father left twice over, if I had responded to even a quarter of the requests I had received.”
“I have been asked to send boys and girls through college. I have been asked to endow hospitals. I have been asked to build churches of every denomination and to found scholarships and take over business concerns. I have been invited to invest in at least 500 get rich security and stock companies.”
“But, please don’t think that because I have no idea of handing over my money to everyone who asks for it that I don’t intend to do any good with it, or that I mean to hoard it. I do want to help people. I haven’t decided yet just how it ought to be done, but I don’t think it will be through organized charity. I shall take the advice of people I know I can trust and then I’ll try to get at those who need help and are too proud to ask for it, if that seems to be the best way.”
For reasons that are not fully known or understood, Rosamond chose to live out the balance of her years in relative seclusion. She moved from the Thompson Road farm to her property in Jewell on Oneida Lake in 1929, surrounded by her horses and other animals. Over those years she was only in close contact with her lawyer George Alston Smith and her banker Howard F. Zinsmeister. In 1945 she sold several acres of the Thompson Road farm to the Society of Jesus, who founded Lemoyne College on the property.
Rosamond passed away at University Hospital on April 15, 1953 – the irony of dying on tax day would not have been lost on a woman who regularly made her tax checks payable to the “Infernal” Revenue Service. Rosamond’s Will was dated July 31, 1952. The great bulk of her wealth, over $5 million at the time, was directed to an organization to be formed exclusively for “religious, educational, scientific, charitable or benevolent uses known as the Rosamond Gifford Charitable Corporation.”
Since its inception the Gifford Foundation has invested over $42 million in our community through its grants, helping start up and/or build some of our major educational and cultural institutions. In 1995 we helped launch the Rosamond Gifford Lecture Series and a $2 million gift in 1999 funded the educational endowment fund at the newly renamed Rosamond Gifford Zoo. The Gifford Scholarship Program, which paid the cost of college education for 134 individuals, was active between 1957 through 1980. The Gifford name is identified with many buildings, meeting rooms and programs throughout the area.
In 2000, and gradually since, the Foundation began a shift in grantmaking strategies. This includes a more proactive approach, smaller grants to more grass-roots organizations, and extensive outreach in the community. We became dedicated to addressing causes and sources of community issues rather than just the symptoms – in short, in building the capacity of the community as well as its organizations.
The Rosamond Gifford Charitable Corporation (The Gifford Foundation) is a private foundation dedicated to the stewardship of the funds entrusted to its care by Rosamond Gifford in 1954. The Foundation is committed to using its financial and human resources to build the capacity of individuals and organizations to enhance the quality of life for the people of Central New York.