Arthur Blank, who celebrated his 80th birthday on Sept. 27, will cap the milestone event by breaking ground next month on a $15 million addition to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta. The two new buildings, to be built on either side of the existing center, will provide much needed space for new exhibits, particularly for children, and accommodate temporary exhibits and an expanded offering of educational projects.
The project highlights eight days of philanthropic service that were coordinated by the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation from Sept. 20-27. The week-long event coincided with the annual Hands On Atlanta week, the city’s largest volunteer effort. Thousands of volunteers that included Blank’s employees from the Atlanta Falcons, the Atlanta United soccer team and Mercedes Benz Stadium, donated their time and energy in support of several community projects. Blank, who was the co-founder of Home Depot and retired as the company’s co-chairman in 2001, noted that he was “humbled and honored” by the effort.
“Atlanta is very dear to me,” he said. “There is opportunity here for everyone to thrive, and for many, that path starts with the community, sometimes even just one person, taking the time to give back. I’m proud that associates from the Blank Family of Businesses and beyond are eager to participate and contribute to positive change.”
“Our associates surprised me with the week of service.” Blank said. “It was their idea, and I’m profoundly honored by that. Serving others is a gift, and there are few things in life that bring a greater sense of satisfaction and purpose. In essence, this past week is not about me. It’s about being our brother’s keeper, celebrating our incredible city and creating positive change.”
The week-long program and the planned construction of the national center’s building are just one part of a history of giving that stretches back more than 35 years. The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation has donated over $950 million to a variety of projects that includes a $200 million gift in the last year to help build a new hospital for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and a $50 million grant to the Shepherd Center.
For the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Blank’s support, which first began long before the center was opened in 2014, has been crucial. The center’s president and chief executive officer, Jill Savitt, described Blank’s latest gift as “transformational” for the future of the organization.
“It allows us to really grow into our name, which is national,” Savitt commented, “so we can be a place where when something happens on these issues, civil rights issues, human rights issues, we’re a natural gathering space for thought leaders throughout the country. And since we’re in Atlanta, it makes sense for Atlanta to take the lead on these issues because of its own history.”
Savitt credited both her own devotion to Jewish values and Blank’s commitment to his Jewish roots for the success of the organization, which has significantly increased its national profile since March of 2019 when she first came to head the center.
“I think Judaism, at least for me and I think for others, is a set of values,” Savitt pointed out. “It’s about having clear rules and making sure everybody follows them. It’s about repairing the world. It’s about treating everybody equally and fairly. Judaism is, in many ways about law and love. And I think that is the spirit that Arthur approaches his work and his philanthropy. It is very much rooted in Judaism.”
Blank spoke about the influences that shaped his life when he discussed his latest book, “Good Company,” shortly before it was published almost exactly two years ago. He credits his parents and particularly his mother, Molly, who raised him alone from the age of 15 after the sudden death of his father.
“She was always involved in the community, always involved in anything from a social standpoint, in terms of points of principle, areas of interest that she had about community involvement and race,” Blank said, “She was always in the middle of everything. So, I think a lot of that I saw at an early age, and it definitely gave me an orientation to being of service to others.”
Blank grew up in the New York City borough of Queens, where he said he was also strongly influenced by the sense of togetherness that developed in the neighborhood. But he believes it was not until his move to Atlanta at the age of 36 to help start Home Depot that he came to fully realize the importance of community.
“Our communities that we live in, our neighborhoods can give us a much higher purpose,” he said. “They can give us the kind of spiritual returns that are important to us leading a full and happy life.”
Savitt believes it is this sense of place and the historical influence that Atlanta has exerted on Blank’s philanthropy that has been most telling. “My sense is that he loves this city, and he loves the history of this city. The unique, profound, transformational role that Atlanta has played in encouraging equality and respect for all people. And he has great reverence for the icons of the civil rights movement, that changed not only the country, but changed the world,” Savitt said.