Foellinger legacy helps children and families

Helene Foellinger contributed to Fort Wayne not just as publisher of The News-Sentinel, but by improving its quality of life as a philanthropist.

Those contributions continue decades after her death and will likely well into the future, thanks to the Foellinger Foundation, created by her and her mother, Esther.

The Foellinger family’s connection to The News-Sentinel began in 1921, when Oscar Foellinger bought The News-Sentinel and became its publisher. By 1926, newspaper offices were at 227 E. Washington Blvd., later home to the United Way of Allen County and now Brightpoint, formerly Community Action of Northeast Indiana.

Helene and her sister, Loretta, both attended South Side High School. Helene worked on the school newspaper and graduated in 1928 as valedictorian. After graduating from the University of Illinois with a math degree, she returned to Fort Wayne to work for her father at The News-Sentinel. She became the editor of its “Women’s Page,” filled with items such as charity information and recipes.

In 1936, when Oscar Foellinger died unexpectedly during a trip in Canada, instead of selling the newspaper as he had suggested upon his death, Helene decided to take it over.

At age 25, she became one of the first women publishers in the country. As publisher, she increased readership, profits and size.

“Looking back on it, people, I guess, thought I was out of my mind. As I look back now,” she said in a 1985 interview, “maybe I was. You know, when you’re young, you sometimes think you can do anything if you have the right people working for you. I was very, very fortunate to have an extremely loyal group of people.”

During her first five years as publisher, News-Sentinel circulation increased from 56,700 to 67,800. In 1950, Foellinger reached a joint operating agreement with the then-ailing Journal-Gazette. She formed Fort Wayne Newspapers Inc. to provide advertising and printing services to both newspapers. Eight years later, she built the newspapers’ present offices at 600 W. Main St.

Many in Fort Wayne also know the Foellinger family through two attractions that bear their name, both of which are under the control and operation of the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department.

In August 1949, Helene Foellinger spoke at the dedication of the Foellinger Outdoor Theatre, which she funded to honor her late father, Oscar Foellinger.

The family enjoyed the outdoors, Taylor said, noting “they fished, camped and rode horses.” Oscar Foellinger “was very much about families coming together.”

The original theater was destroyed by fire in 1972, and it was rebuilt with an added roof in 1976.

To prepare for the Foellinger Foundation’s 50th anniversary in 2009, current foundation President Cheryl Taylor read all of the board meeting minutes from all that time. She discovered that in the 1960s, Esther Foellinger had the idea of building a downtown garden.

Helene Foellinger and Bill Sowers, a local attorney and trustee, who often visited gardens around the world together, made Esther’s dream a reality. After finding funding from the city of Fort Wayne, the Foellinger Foundation, the Freimann Trust, and Lincoln National Corp., the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory opened in 1983. Its 25,000 feet of indoor gardens include an area for tropical plants near a waterfall and an arid room. It hosts an annual exhibit of live butterflies. It welcomed its 1 millionth visitor in 1996, according to its website.

Helene and her mother started the Foellinger Foundation startedin 1959 with a gift of nearly $5,000. After Esther’s death and then Helene’s, the foundation got infusions of money from their estates, Taylor said.

With those being the only donations to the foundation, since then its assets have increased through investments. Dipping a couple of million dollars during the recession that started in December 2007, its assets have slowly built back up.

As the foundation’s assets grew, so did the amount it gave in grants. As of Aug. 31, the end of its fiscal year, the foundation had $202.7 million in assets and had awarded more than $8 million in grants so far this year, according to unaudited figures.

About 90 percent of the grants, given three times a year, go to benefit children and families, Taylor said.

Helene, who was inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame in 1974, was the last survivor in her immediate family.

Her sister, Loretta Teeple, was killed in a plane crash with her husband and another Fort Wayne couple in 1950, 30 miles northeast of La Crosse. Wis., as they were returning from a fishing trip, according to the Terre Haute Tribune.

Esther Foellinger died in 1969.

In 1985, Helene, who never married, explained, “I married my job. I was perfectly willing to sacrifice a great deal, which I’m sure I did.”

With no family left to succeed her in the business, she sold The News-Sentinel and her controlling interest in Fort Wayne Newspapers to Knight-Ridder Newspapers Inc. in 1980 for about $37 million. The newspaper is now owned by Ogden Newspapers of Wheeling, W.Va.

Foellinger died of cancer March 25, 1987. She was 76.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)