Montgomery honors Choice Hotels, ManorCare founder for philanthropic giving

Stewart Bainum's Commonweal Foundation gives millions to help disadvantaged students.
Stewart Bainum's Commonweal Foundation gives millions to help disadvantaged students. (Raphael Talisman/the Gazette)
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By Jason Tomassini
The Gazette
Thursday, November 26, 2009

Stewart Bainum's empire began 73 years ago with $3 and a cardboard suitcase.

Bainum, 17 at the time, had been kicked out of his private high school outside Cincinnati because he couldn't afford the tuition.

So he took whatever money and belongings he had, hitchhiked to the Washington area after a recommendation from a friend, found a job as a plumber's assistant and made enough money to go back and get his high school diploma from the school that had tossed him.

"One day I was holding the suitcase too close to the road, and a car hit it," said Bainum, the founder of Choice Hotels International and ManorCare nursing homes. "I had to piece it all back together."

Things never came easily for him, Bainum, 90, said. But he has dedicated much of his life to making things simpler for others.

After making his fortune from Choice Hotels and ManorCare, Bainum began funding the Commonweal Foundation, a nonprofit organization that gives about $12 million per year of Bainum family money to scholarships and educational programs for disadvantaged students.

Last week, the Montgomery County Community Foundation recognized Bainum as the county's philanthropist of the year, honoring the man not for his considerable wealth but for the way he used it.

"I don't want to make big things out of my family's worth," Bainum said from his Chevy Chase office Nov. 16, a day before he received the award at a ceremony in Bethesda. "You shouldn't be giving money away just because of your ego."

That humility made it difficult to persuade Bainum, who is known for shying from the spotlight and public appearances, to accept the award.

"Even though he didn't want it and wouldn't like it, we were going to do it anyway," Barbara Bainum, Stewart's daughter and successor as Commonweal chief executive, said of nominating her father for the award.

When he won the award, "I had to call him and break the news," she said with a straight face. "That was difficult."

Stewart Bainum's father worked as a machinist for Ford Motor Co. in Detroit for 20 years before getting laid off during the Great Depression. He moved the family to Cincinnati and worked for the government for $1 a day. His father woke at 3 a.m. daily to purchase produce from farmers and then sell it in the streets of Cincinnati.


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