Jerry Askew
Executive director
East Tennessee Foundation

Age: 44

Family: Wife, Robyn, a local lawyer and real estate investor; son Taylor, 10, and daughter Avery, 6; two Labrador retriever puppies, Max and Rose.

Why he thought about joining the seminary: "My spiritual life is a fundamental part of me. I wear a [crucifix] ring on my right hand and a [wedding] ring on my left hand to remind me of what the two most important things in my life are. I don't try to wear it on my sleeve. It's not something I wave a flag about and say, 'Aren't I great.' It's really a personal thing."

Belongs to: Messiah Lutheran Church

Just bought: An 83-year-old house on Kingston Pike. "It'll be a lifetime project."

Most interesting person he met while raising funds for the University of Tennessee: "There was a guy out in Texas, this guy was great. He learned how to scuba dive as an undergraduate. He wanted to live his life by that old maxim, 'If you want to be happy, find something you enjoy doing and get somebody to pay you to do it.' So when he graduated, he rented himself out to oil companies down in Louisiana to check out their rigs. One thing led to another, and he developed an underwater recovery company that's one of the largest in the world. They picked up the Korean jetliner pieces, they picked up the Challenger pieces, all of that. He developed a space division—he was watching television one day looking at the arm on the shuttle and he said, 'You know, I bet they pay millions of dollars to develop equipment that we use underwater routinely.' So he developed a space division. ...He said, 'We just invented a breathing apparatus that allows an astronaut to stay outside the vehicle three times longer than they ever could before.' I said, 'That's fascinating. I just can't imagine there's much of a market for it.' He said, 'No, but with just the slightest alteration, every firefighter in the world wants one.'"

by Jesse Fox Mayshark

The waitress with the nose ring is exceptionally friendly, checking repeatedly to make sure everything's okay and then apologizing for interrupting the conversation. Jerry Askew grins, says "Oh no, that's all right," and sounds like he means it.

We're in a booth at the revamped Manhattan's, and the waitress is about the same age as the thousands of kids for whom Askew was responsible when he was dean of students at the University of Tennessee. Greeting each incoming class, he told them he was there to look out for them, to make sure they got from their first day to graduation day. He told them they could call him anytime. They did.

"One student called and said, 'Dean Askew, you told us to call no matter what'—this was about 2 o'clock in the morning and he was a freshman, first semester—and he said, 'I just can't decide, I can't sleep, I have to know: Do you think I should major in computer science or electrical engineering?'" Askew laughs helplessly at the memory.

"I laughed. I said, A.) Have you talked to your advisor? 'Well, no.' Well, that would be a good place to start. And B.) It doesn't matter, you're going to change majors three times anyway."

The 44-year-old Askew, pink-cheeked with brown hair headed for gray, knows about changing tracks. This spring, he left two decades in higher education to become executive director of the East Tennessee Foundation, the highest-profile private foundation in the region. It was the culmination of several years of philosophical navel-gazing.

"When I was 38, I decided that I was not going to have a mid-life crisis like so many people do," he says, digging a fork into a plateful of pasta topped with grilled vegetables. "I decided I was going to have a mid-life evaluation. I started out by assessing, literally, what my strengths and weaknesses were, what some of my fundamental values were, and what it was I wanted to spend the next half of my professional life doing. I seriously considered seminary for a while. I considered a lot of different things. But I really knew I wanted to work with people, I wanted to do good, I wanted to have an impact on my community."

A turning point came at a reunion a few years ago at UNC Chapel Hill, Askew's alma mater. For three days, he sat in on panel discussions about the future of public education, race relations, death and dying—"The kinds of big-issue questions that all of us have to face." He listened to the things his former classmates were doing with their lives.

"I was just astounded," he says. "I came back so fired up for getting involved. And shortly thereafter, [former ET Foundation director] Katherine Pearson called and said, 'I wanted you guys to hear it before you read it in the newspaper—I'm moving to Africa.'"

Pearson, a friend of the Askews, left last year to head up the Ford Foundation's East African wing. Jerry Askew couldn't help noticing the vacancy that created.

Founded in the mid-'80s, the East Tennessee Foundation raises money through donations and disburses it to dozens of non-profit groups in several focus areas: the arts, community development, youth at risk, education. Among its Knoxville beneficiaries are the East Tennessee Historical Society, the Knoxville Museum of Art, neighborhood groups all over the city, and career programs at the Center School.

With an endowment of around $37 million, the Foundation gives away $2.5-$3 million a year across 19 counties. In addition to direct grants, it provides technical assistance to community groups struggling to form or expand. The overall goal is to have a permanent base of support for community projects.

"One way to think about it is, the United Way is the community's checking account, and we are the community's savings account," Askew says.

He already had some experience juggling large amounts of money. After stepping down as dean of students, he helped with UT's 21st Century Campaign, a fund-raising effort that set out to generate $250 million and wound up with nearly $400 million. It's been the only recent bright spot in UT's otherwise foreboding financial picture.

The Foundation board selected Askew only after conducting a nationwide search, to avoid appearances of good-ol'-boyism. Less than six months into the job, he can already rattle off Foundation stats and projects.

"We're a partner in a process to buy about 150 houses that were in the [Florence] Monday estate," he offers as an example. "This group is going to buy 150 houses, rehab them, take the baseboard heat out, put insulation in, vinyl siding on, make sure the roof's well done. We'll spend about $20,000 apiece on the [houses], and then sell them, preferably to homeowners—these were rental properties—preferably to get the renters back into the houses. By insulating them, fixing the windows and all that, we hope we can save enough money for them to be able to afford the extra money that it'll cost on the mortgage. And our part in the project is that, through our affordable housing fund, we are able to help pay down the loans so they can get 5 percent interest on the loans."

Askew's enthusiasm for the project—for all the Foundation's projects—is coupled with an obvious incredulity that it's his job to give away other people's money. "Doing good is a really good way to make a living," he says.

Of course, it's not all Santa Claus. A big part of it is making sure there's money there to be given away. The Foundation is in a sort of perennial fund-drive, always scouting potential donors and counseling them on the best way to make their gifts effective.

"Let's say somebody comes in and they've got a half-million-dollar asset, and they know they want to do something charitable with it, but they just don't want to make all the decisions right now," Askew says. "So then we create a donor advised fund, and they would appoint themselves or their children as advisors. What that means is that they can then decide which charities they want to recommend for funding."

All recommendations have to be approved by the Foundation's board of directors. Askew says the board is careful to avoid appearances of political advocacy.

"We are a catalyst for helping our community deal with our own needs and opportunities, so that no one else has to," he says. "The Foundation doesn't have a political agenda."

Nevertheless, the politics of the 1990s—the move away from strong government and the decentralization of spending—has had an impact on all charitable groups. Private foundations are more and more asked to step in where federal or state support falls short. It's a role Askew is comfortable with.

"The national mood is to move toward doing more for ourselves, addressing our own concerns, and foundations make that possible," he says.

As for how long he plans to do this, Askew just laughs and says, "That's completely up to the board. But I can tell you this—I really enjoyed working in higher education and made a lot of friends there...But some days I get up there at the East Tennessee Foundation, I walk into the office and I sit down and look at my agenda for the day, and I say, 'I can't believe somebody's paying me to do this.' I'm having the time of my life."