Ruth Lilly remembered for ‘selfless’ giving

Philanthropist Ruth Lilly, the last surviving great-grandchild of pharmaceutical magnate Eli Lilly, died Wednesday night at home, her longtime attorney confirmed Thursday.


Lilly, 94, gave away hundreds of millions of dollars of her fortune during her lifetime. Her name adorns countless local institutions, including the Ruth Lilly Philanthropic Foundation, formed in 2002. The foundation makes $10 million in charitable gifts each year.

“The difference she has made is almost immeasurable,” said Thomas P. Ewbank, the Krieg DeVault attorney who represented her until 2006, when a Marion County probate judge appointed two personal guardians to handle her affairs.  “She gave away a higher proportion of her assets during her lifetime than her father, uncle and grandfather did. At one point, we calculated it was well over $200 million locally.”

Indeed, court documents showed in 2002 that Lilly had bequeathed nearly $500 million to charitable and arts-related groups—both in Indiana and elsewhere.

Among her higher-profile gifts: $100 million to the influential Chicago literary magazine Poetry, which ironically had refused to publish work she had written.

A family statement released Thursday said that during her later years Lilly’s philanthropy widened her circle of contacts and interests and her life "became much more interesting and rewarding."

Ewbank said the impact of Lilly’s generosity extended beyond the value of her donations. Often, her gifts served as seed money to attract other charitable giving.

“She was selfless in her giving,” he told IBJ, adding that she didn’t necessarily want her name to adorn facilities at organizations she supported. But the recipients often asked to do it anyway. “Many charities felt it was to their benefit to name something after her.”

That wasn’t Lilly’s goal, Ewbank said.

“She was very modest, did not like the limelight at all,” he said. “She just wanted to go about her life doing good things.”

Lilly’s fortune—held largely in the form of Eli Lilly and Co. stock—was valued at $1 billion in 2002.

“Today, Indianapolis mourns the passing of Ruth Lilly, a compassionate woman whose generous nature has shaped and enriched our city for this and future generations,"  Mayor Greg Ballard said in a prepared statement. "We can see her positive influence everywhere we look in our community, from the Ruth Lilly Health Education Center at Methodist Hospital to the Salvation Army’s Social Service Center that also bears her name."

Lilly led a reclusive life, weighed down by physical ailments and depression. As an adult, she rarely appeared in public, despite her philanthropic activity. Lilly was married for more than 40 years but her marriage ended in divorce, with no children.

In 1981, a judge ruled she was incapable of managing her property and appointed a local bank, now National City, to serve as conservator of her estate.

Three years ago, National City and Lilly’s six nieces and nephews went back to court and asked that personal guardians be appointed when her condition “deteriorated such that she is incapable of making personal and medical decisions.”

Her nephew Eli “Ted” Lilly II and niece Ruth Virginia Lilly Nicholas took on the guardian role.

National City still handles Lilly’s estate, despite being accused of “gross negligence” in 2003 by two of the arts organizations that received major gifts in 2002. The Chicago-based Poetry Foundation and the Washington, D.C.-based Americans for the Arts said the bank bungled management of Lilly’s assets, costing then tens of millions of dollars.

A probate court and appeals court ruled in favor of the bank, and the Indiana Supreme Court declined to hear the arts groups’ appeal. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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