Donna Altvater, Henson Foundation's guiding force, retires

By Susan Parker
Posted 6/29/21

Donna Altvater has a unique perspective on one of our region’s major philanthropists – the late Richard Henson, whose name is associated with major gifts that funded buildings for area …

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Donna Altvater, Henson Foundation's guiding force, retires

Donna Alvater has served as Richard A. Henson Foundation Director for the past 22 years.
Donna Alvater has served as Richard A. Henson Foundation Director for the past 22 years.
Salisbury Independent Photo

Donna Altvater has a unique perspective on one of our region’s major philanthropists – the late Richard Henson, whose name is associated with major gifts that funded buildings for area YMCAs, as well as buildings located on the campuses of University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Salisbury University and Wor-Wic Community College.

It’s also closely affiliated with Henson’s first love – aviation; Henson founded Piedmont Airlines.

But the most impactful and focused of his giving is arguably the smaller grants awarded throughout the year annually by the Henson Foundation, which go to smaller, more locally focused nonprofits.

“Almost from the beginning I felt this strong connection to Mr. Henson,” Altvater said. “He was having some health issues – significant issues – and I found myself dealing with that, trying to learn a new job. And then I had Mr. Henson, who really needed a good deal of attention at the same time.”

Altvater became Henson’s caretaker as well as his foundation’s Executive Director, making sure his needs were met. After Henson died on June 12, 2002, she saw through the settling of his estate, which largely benefited the Salisbury community, and other legal aspects related to his passing.

“Had I known what I was getting into,” Altvater said, “I’m not sure I would have taken the job. But fortunately, I did take the job.” It was the beginning of a long and fruitful tenure at the helm of Henson’s philanthropic foundation.

“That’s when my feet got on the ground and we were able to really do what we were meant to do,” she said. “Our board tries to view each application through Mr. Henson’s eyes, considering what he would do to carry out the foundation’s mission.”

That mission, which articulates Henson’s personal philosophy and priorities, is a full page in length. It is the driving force in decision-making for the foundation’s Board of Trustees as well as for its administrative functions.

The list of 10 priorities address the well-being of the community, items such as character, education, entrepreneurial spirit, young people, Christian ideals and overall excellence, individual and community responsibility and pride, among other things.

“Mr. Henson always paid attention to details,” said Tom Evans, a longtime member of the Board of Trustees, “and Donna is the same way. She found Mr. Henson to be kind and gracious on a day-to-day basis. In addition to being executive director of the foundation for 22 years, in his later years she became his caretaker, simultaneously coordinating the business of the foundation along with Mr. Henson’s home care. She also helped make sure the household chores were taken care of.”

“I always say the Executive Director title means you do everything, you carry all the luggage,” said Altvater, referencing the fact that those who work in the hotel lobby have the most jobs. “You do the bookkeeping, manage the building itself and its operations, and field phone calls and emails about foundation business, whether a particular organization fits our mission, how to apply for grants and administration of grants that are awarded.”

Working with a well-known, larger-than-life figure like Henson had its moments.

“When I first started working with (Henson), I knew who he was and had seen his name in the newspaper – but that’s all I knew,” Altvater said. “I’d seen his name on the YMCA building. I replied to a job ad in The Daily Times for a 20-hour-a-week position. I quickly learned that to be out in public with him was like being with a celebrity. People would just come up to him.”

One day while they were in Sam’s Club, she said, before they knew it he was surrounded by a group of people wanting to talk to him.

“He was, as he always was, gracious and made time for everyone who wanted to talk to him, and he was always pleasant,” she said. “I thought it was very interesting how people were so attracted to him, and how he always handled it well.”

The Henson Foundation offices are located on West Main Street, inside a building that was a donation from Maryland National Bank. Because Henson had a private foundation, he was able to accept the donation as a gift.

“At the time,” Altvater said, “they were looking for a home for the Greater Salisbury Committee, and Mr. Henson accepted the donation on behalf of that committee. In return, the Greater Salisbury Committee contributed to the cost of renovations.”

The bank building had four walk-in safes, and in the upper floors, those safes were turned into kitchens.

“I just tell people it’s because we place such a high value on food here,” said Altvater, laughing. “But seriously, Mr. Henson was so proud of this building.”

The building has a few unique features in addition to the safes that now serve as kitchen areas.

“During renovations we discovered that above the dropped ceiling on the third floor was a beautiful stained-glass skylight set in the ceiling,” Altvater said. Above the stained glass is an enclosure with installed lighting, so the skylight no longer gets natural light, but can be enjoyed any time, night or day.

Altvater enjoyed documenting Henson’s career, including a book, video and series of photo collages that can be seen throughout the third-floor offices.

“He led a fascinating life,” she said.

Altvater has met with Henson Scholars to hear what the scholarships meant to them and how they planned to use their educations. Many went on to graduate school to become scientists, pilots, teachers, doctors and more.

“The head of the Henson School at Salisbury University, Michael Scott, was a Henson Scholar,” she said, “one of the first to receive the award. He was a student in the Henson School, received a Henson scholarship and later he became dean of the school. In addition, Anita Brown, also a Henson Scholar, is now an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry. That seems significant.”

Henson’s spirit remains a guiding force for the foundation he created. Sometimes apparently quite literally.

“After Mr. Henson passed,” Altvater said, “occasionally when the board would make a decision about a particular grant, one of the track lights would begin to flash – always the same one. The joke was that Mr. Henson must approve of the board’s decision.”

“This building is a beautiful old girl,” Altvater said.

Altvater has spent the past six weeks with the incoming executive director, which she sees as a chance to make sure the leadership transition will take place without making much of a ripple in the functioning of the Foundation itself.

Stacey McMichael will take over Altvater’s office on July 1.

“I think things will continue the way they have been,” said McMichael. “The only differences I see are that I think the world is changing, with different nonprofits starting up and closing down. So even without changing any of the foundation’s focuses, you could possibly see some different opportunities to support, but that’s just a function of life, not of us changing any of our goals.” Henson was, she noted, very clear about his priorities and giving guidelines when he created the foundation.

“The foundation will always honor that,” McMichael said.

“I have enjoyed working with the Henson trustees in carrying out Mr. Henson’s mission,” said Altvater.

“Donna has been such an amazing leader for our organization. Her commitment to Mr. Henson’s legacy has been unwavering,” said Greg Olinde, current Chairman of the Board of Trustees. “She has been a sounding board for our trustees and community partners alike. We have a unique trustee profile, and Donna successfully built and maintained great individual long-term relationships with each one of us. She has managed the Greater Salisbury Building with immense pride and we are so thankful to have had the opportunity to work with her. We wish her the very best in retirement.”

“I think Mr. Henson would be pleased with her tenure,” said Evans. “And we believe we have found exactly the right person to fill the executive director position. Stacey is a dynamic individual who brings the right combination of nonprofit experience and business acumen that we were looking for to succeed Donna. Her energy and passion for helping others aligns perfectly with Mr. Henson’s giving philosophy.”

McMichael brings nine years of experience with local nonprofits to the position, including United Way of the Lower Eastern Shore and more recently, TidalHealth Foundation, which follows more than 20 years of small business ownership and management.

“I am both humbled and honored to lead the Richard A. Henson Foundation into the next phase,” said McMichael.