By Ron Word
Once upon a time, there was a boy who stood on the beach and watched the starfish wash ashore. Over and over again, as the seas spit the fish up, he would walk over, pick them up and throw them back into the water.
One day, a man saw the boy on the beach, picking up starfish and throwing them back into the ocean. “There are too many starfish,” the man said. “You cannot possibly make a difference.”
The boy picked up yet another starfish and launched it back into the sea. “I saved that one.”
Delores Barr Weaver repeats this story all the time — in speeches, to journalists, to whoever will listen. It’s a mission statement, she says, a reminder “to make a difference in one life at a time.”
“She is a passionate person. She goes full bore,” her husband, J. Wayne Weaver, says. He would know. The couple has been married for nearly six decades. “She has a big heart and she wants to help those who are less fortunate.”
And so she does, especially women and children.
Since coming to Jacksonville in 1993, the Weavers have donated at least $145 million to local charities — $91 million in the last year alone, according to The Community Foundation in Jacksonville, which helps manage the Weavers’ philanthropy. She donated $6 million to start the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center to advocate for better treatment for troubled girls. She donated millions more to breast cancer research (her mother died from the disease in 1957 at age 40). She’s supported shelters for battered women. She’s also provided endowments at 24 area nonprofits to help ensure their continued operation, including WJCT, The Women’s Center of Jacksonville, the Cathedral Arts Project, PACE Center for Girls and Hubbard House, a women’s shelter.
Because of this considerable philanthropy and her commitment to making Northeast Florida a better place to live — especially for the less fortunate among us — Folio Weekly is pleased to name Delores Barr Weaver our 2013 Person of the Year.
‘Wayne said he didn’t have a chance’
Delores Barr was just 15 when she met Wayne. She worked vacations and weekends as a cashier in his mother’s dress shop in Columbus, Ga., , where she grew up some 200 miles northwest of Jacksonville. She was sweet on him. For Wayne’s mother, however, no woman was good enough, according to another female employee.
“I thought to myself, ’We’ll see about that,’ ” she says. And so their love story began with Delores wooing not just Wayne, but also (and perhaps more important) his mother. As has happened many times throughout the course of Weaver’s life, she got what she wanted.
“I remember her saying she loved me first,” Weaver says. “Wayne said he didn’t have a chance.”
They married in 1955, after she graduated from high school.
Weaver didn’t come from money. “My parents were Middle-American,” she says. “They didn’t have anything to give. If you wanted something, you needed to work for it.”
Her father owned a string of service stations in Columbus. Her mother, like most mothers of that era, was a homemaker. Beyond that, Weaver doesn’t volunteer much about her early life — and only reveals details (for instance, her first name is actually Sybol, though she never uses it) when asked directly.
She will tell you that married life wasn’t always easy, as is often the case for young couples. Wayne, a determined shoe salesman without a college degree, climbed the corporate ladder of the St. Louis-based Brown Shoe Company. Delores worked for the phone company. They had two children, and not a lot of money. At least not like they have now.
That all began to change when Wayne left Brown in 1978 to become CEO of Nine West, then a small shoe importer. In a little over a decade, Nine West was generating a half-billion dollars in annual sales. In 1992, Wayne resigned to run Shoe Carnival, a company he had purchased in 1988.
Delores didn’t need to work at the phone company any longer.
That same year, Delores’ brother-in-law, John, a Jacksonville businessman, talked Wayne into becoming the lead investor in the effort to land an NFL team in Jacksonville. Wayne played hardball with the city council, threatening to scuttle the deal unless the city agreed to pay for any cost overruns for the Gator Bowl renovation. The city acceded to his demands, agreeing to pay $121 million toward landing a pro team. The NFL awarded Jacksonville a franchise in November 1993.
As soon as the Weavers became majority owners of the Jags, Delores told her investors that she wanted to start a foundation to help disadvantaged youth and families in the community. Though it’s a common practice now, there weren’t many sports teams affiliated with these charities back then. Now, under her leadership, the Jaguars Foundation has donated more than $15 million to community causes.
In March 1995, six months before the Jaguars played their first game, the foundation donated $140,000 in grants to local charities such as the Girl Scouts, PACE Center for Girls and the Bridge of Northeast Florida, a nonprofit working with underprivileged youth. Delores Weaver was true to her commitment to the disadvantaged.
Weaver was also the first woman on the board of NFL Charities. Now, there are two on the seven-person board. “I really have an issue with it being a man’s world,” she says. “Women are just as capable as men.” Two years ago, the Weavers sold the Jaguars for $770 million. They converted their Weaver Family Foundation into a $23.7 million fund managed by The Community Foundation. Delores later donated an additional $50 million to the foundation — the largest donation that nonprofit has ever received.
Philanthropy is a duty
Here’s the thing about Delores Weaver. She has the money to go anywhere she pleases, do anything she wants — and the Weavers do travel frequently. (They climbed Mount Kilimanjaro together in 1989; it was her idea.) But she’s made this place, Jacksonville, her home, and says she wants to remain here the rest of her life. Because this is home, because she’s become so deeply invested in this place — not just financially, but spiritually, too — because this place has invested so much in her, and in the Jaguars, she feels that her philanthropy is a duty, almost something she owes us.
She’s not the kind of philanthropist who writes a check and goes about her business. Weaver advises The Community Foundation’s staff on all the projects she’s interested in, and staff members provide her with research materials to study. “They really do a lot of the work for me, but when it comes down to it, I make the decision [about which organizations to support],” she says. “There are things I really care about and I’m not afraid to stir the pot.”
Back in the ’90s, for instance, she started a program called Straight Talk — and politely coerced six area television stations into simultaneously running a Straight Talk town hall — designed to provide teens with completely factual information about sex and contraception. Too many babies were having babies, she said, and too many young men engaged in unprotected sex with no thought of the consequences. After the Weavers sold the team and along with it the Jaguars Foundation, new owner Shad Khan announced that he’d no longer sponsor the annual event, saying he wanted to make his own decisions on programs the foundation would sponsor.
Weaver countered that if the foundation wouldn’t cover Straight Talk, she’d foot the bill.
More recently, the Weavers donated $10 million to Baptist Health, which in turn named its new tower in their honor. Their money will go to the health system’s endowment for programs in pediatric and adolescent behavioral health.
“The gift is the largest in our health system’s history, and will help transform mental health care in our community,” says Audrey M. Moran, Baptist Health’s senior vice president.
In the fall of 2012, the Weavers attended a screening of the acclaimed documentary “The Invisible War,” and Delores Weaver was drawn into the boiling-over issue of sexual assault in the military. In May 2013, she donated $500,000 and pledged another $500,000 in matching funds to Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group that offers support to service members who are raped or sexually assaulted by fellow service members — and who are often retaliated against by their chain of command.
In mid-December, the Weavers donated $100,000 to the Five Star Veterans Center, a nonprofit transitional housing facility for homeless military veterans. Earlier this year, the center was on the brink of closing after its principal sponsor, Allied Veterans of the World, was shuttered amid the uproar about the gambling scandal that brought down the state’s lieutenant governor. (Allied Veterans, which ran Internet cafés around the state, was giving only a small amount of its profits to veterans and veterans groups.)
“Our country is not supporting veterans the way it should,” Weaver says. “I hope they will have a little more sound footing for a while.”
‘Lives most of us cannot imagine’
Weaver’s pet project, however, is the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, a nonprofit she established in late 2012. It opened in April with the goal of improving the lives of girls, especially those caught in the juvenile criminal justice system, through programs, research and training for those who work with and advocate for at-risk girls.
These girls have “led lives most of us cannot imagine,” says Dr. Lawanda Ravoira, the center’s president and CEO, whom Weaver chose because of her extensive experience as executive director of the PACE Center for Girls, where she worked for 13 years. “They have suffered grief and loss, abuse, violence and/or trauma.”
Those experiences, Ravoira continues, led the girls to act out, which in turn got them locked up. Counties in Northeast Florida, in fact, imprison more girls that Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and Tampa combined. The center’s goal is to find out why, to get to the root of the problem. “Through the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, Ms. Weaver had enabled us to bring rigorous research and in-depth analysis of the data to identify root causes and implement solutions for this alarming trend,” Ravoira says. The goal, she adds, is to in time create a model that could be emulated nationally, one that “creates hope and opportunity out of injustice, violence and abuse.”
In the end, it’s about responsibility, about being a part of a community, about using her wealth to help others — one person at a time, even if she can’t help them all, just like the boy who rescued starfish.
“I know for me, it’s the right thing to do. I just know it is important to me to do what I can and do as much as I can to help the less fortunate.”