Wisdom Project | Donald J. Stone, 93

Don Stone, a man with a red shirt, glasses and a closely trimmed white beardsmiles smiles at the camera

The Wisdom Project at Moment: Inspirational conversations with wise people who have been fortunate to live long lives.

Dallas, Texas, philanthropist Don Stone is a gift that just keeps on giving—to the city’s schools, the symphony, the arts, the library and, since the early 1980s, to Hebrew Union College and its Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. Along the way, he has amassed countless honors and decades of wisdom.

Born in Cleveland, Stone moved with his family to Fort Worth when he was nine. A graduate of the University of Texas in Austin and member of its Business School Hall of Fame, Stone began his career as a buyer for Houston’s now-defunct Foley’s Basement store and rose to become vice chairman of Federated Department Stores, now Macy’s Inc., first in Cincinnati and then in Dallas.

In Cincinnati, at Hebrew Union College’s Ethics Center, he and his wife of 70 years established The Donald J. and Dr. Norma K. Stone Ethics Lecture Fellowship to support programs on ethical questions relating to social justice.

Among their recent gifts, the Stones endowed $500,000 in college scholarships for musically gifted students in the Dallas Independent School District. He’s chaired the boards of both the Dallas and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestras and led the Dallas Symphony Foundation. Stone also led fundraising efforts to renovate and expand the Dallas Central Library and build a new high school for the performing arts. In 2018, the Dallas Black Dance Theater choreographed a dance to honor him.

The Stones split their time between Dallas, London, and Aspen, Colorado. They have three children, six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

 

Was there an early experience that put you on your path in life?

Not in my childhood, but one summer during college was formative. In those days, three years of undergraduate work qualified you for law school. I had applied to law school—I think I’d been accepted, I don’t remember. But I got a job selling the Encyclopedia Britannica door to door by lying about my age. As luck would have it, I made a sale the first day out. Then I didn’t want to spend three years in law school—I thought I could make money just talking. So I finished my undergrad degree and went to work.

Why retail?

A friend of mine in college who’d graduated one year earlier went to work at Foley’s. He had three promotions there in one year, and I knew he wasn’t any smarter than I was.

What have you learned in life?

Probably, the most difficult thing has been to learn to listen instead of talk. If you care about people, listen to them, work with them, motivate them. Help other people be successful in life.

When did philanthropy become your full-time passion?

I retired at an early age, basically because I was in disagreement with the chairman of the company. Up to that point, I’d thoroughly enjoyed my working career. I was able to quit because I had saved enough money to do that.

Can you share any of your financial wisdom?

I was lucky in that Federated had a program where executives could put up to a third of their annual income into a non-taxable fund that was invested in the market. I was probably 30 years old when I started doing that. It obviously adds up. Take a hunk of money when you can, and put it away—invest it in something.

What about young people, many of whom have college loans?

Save what you can. Save enough that you can retire when you want to. Save enough that you can be an independent person, not dependent on whoever the boss is or whoever the boss becomes.

What do you think of the world today?

It’s very frightening because there are so many people in leadership roles around the world who are egotistical, who basically want to be dictators. They are not good human beings. And that’s a damn shame.

What advice would you give to young people about living a good life?

Find a way of making a living that you find enjoyable. It must be very difficult to work every day and not like what you’re doing or who you’re working for. Other than that, care about other people. Find people to help. Set an example for your children. My wife and I were involved in civic activities from a very young age. Adults set an example, whatever they do.

What are the essential life experiences that no one should miss?

Being close to people who are smarter than you. Finding people who are doing things in the community that you find positive and using them as an example. Associate yourself with people you admire, who are actually accomplishing in the fields you care about. Learn from everyone you encounter. People are fascinating.

Can you give me an example of something you learned by being open-minded?

I was never involved in the Hebrew Union College until we moved to Cincinnati. I wanted to learn more about Judaism. So, I called the college and asked them to educate me. I figured I was in the city where they were headquartered and that was my opportunity to learn more. That’s how I first got involved with HUC.

Something else: music. I wasn’t involved in music before I met my wife. She’s not a musician, but she grew up in a family that cared about classical music and went to concerts. I discovered it through her. You know, there are so many wonderful things going on around you! Seek them out. Discover what moves you.

What role does money play in giving back—or paying it forward?

If you’re going to be involved in your community, you’ve got to give money and you’ve got to raise money. We don’t have royalty, we support our own symphonies. So, if you hear about an organization in your community, or a college, or something else in need that you care about, you’ve got to figure out a way to help support them.

How do you convince people to give money?

I ask for it. You don’t get anything you don’t ask for.

What concerns you most right now?

Dictatorship of one kind or another. And climate change. We’re nuts if we don’t focus on it now and see if we can keep the planet livable.

What would you like to do for the rest of your life—or maybe just next?

Read! Right now, I’m reading books out of my library. Some of them I haven’t seen in 30, 40 years. They’re great fun to go back to. Carl Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s The Coming of the New Deal. And new books, too. I just finished reading Michelle Obama’s The Light We Carry.

Who has inspired you in your life?

The people who I knew or worked for who were way ahead of me in their careers and were doing things in a way that I admired. There are always people like that. You’ve just got to find them.

How would you like to inspire others?

We all have only one life to live. Whether it lasts a long time or it doesn’t, it’s still your only opportunity. You don’t get to come back and do it over again, at least as far as we know. So, I would encourage people to decide what you want to accomplish, for yourself, your family and society. Obviously that will change over time—when you’re 25 years old, you have a different point of view than when you’re 45 or 65. But at every stage, you have to sit with yourself and figure it out. And don’t be selfish.

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