The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Betty Brown Casey, Washington philanthropist, dies at 95

She was a longtime supporter of the Washington National Opera and donated $100 million to cultivate and care for trees in the nation’s capital

Washington philanthropist Betty Brown Casey and opera singer Plácido Domingo, the general director of the Washington Opera, in 1996. Ms. Casey was a longtime benefactor of the opera company, now known as the Washington National Opera. (Khue Bui/The Washington Post)

Betty Brown Casey, a quiet but influential force in Washington philanthropy who inherited a fortune from her husband, survived a mysterious car bombing and went on to donate tens of millions of dollars to hospitals, schools and civic groups, helping to plant thousands of trees and keep the music playing at the Washington National Opera, died Aug. 17 at her home in Potomac, Md. She was 95.

Her death was confirmed by her lawyer, Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., who said she had been in poor health but did not give a specific cause.

Mrs. Casey was deeply private and avoided interviews, preferring to remain behind the scenes while donating to organizations including the Salvation Army and the Washington public broadcaster WETA. “I don’t like to get up in front of groups. … I like the quiet life,” she once said.

Still, she made headlines for ambitious yet uncompleted projects that promised to transform the city, including a plan to spend $50 million of her own money to construct an official residence for the D.C. mayor, and a proposal to revitalize downtown with a new home for the Washington National Opera, which named her life chairman in 1999. That same year, she read a Washington Post article about the decline of tree cover in the nation’s capital and decided to get involved in the issue.

Mrs. Casey went on to donate $100 million — including an initial $50 million gift to the Garden Club of America — to support what is now Casey Trees, a nonprofit organization that plants and cares for trees in Washington. The group has planted more than 41,000 trees in the city, according to spokeswoman Italia Peretti, including many saplings that were grown at Mrs. Casey’s 730-acre farm along the Shenandoah River in Berryville, Va., which she also donated to the organization.

A former psychiatric social worker, Mrs. Casey was married for 31 years to Eugene B. Casey, a developer and investor who served as an agricultural adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He built shopping malls, apartment buildings and low-cost housing in the Rockville and Gaithersburg area, acquiring a reputation as a brilliant but parsimonious executive with a domineering style, both at the office and at home. To friends, he boasted that he made 95 percent of the decisions in his marriage and told Mrs. Casey how to handle the rest.

By the time he died in 1986, his fortune was estimated at more than $200 million. Half his estate went to Mrs. Casey. Most of the other half went to his foundation, which Mrs. Casey had taken an active role in running. Over the years, she saw to it that her husband was memorialized in the name of a hospice in Rockville, a diabetes education center in Bethesda, and academic and swimming centers at Washington College, her alma mater on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

While many of her donations were made in her husband’s name, the wealth attracted unwanted attention. In 1990, a pipe bomb exploded in the trunk of her white Mercedes 560 as she was being driven home to Potomac from a shopping trip in Washington. The back of the car was heavily damaged, but no one was seriously injured. Mrs. Casey was cut on her face, and her secretary, who was driving the car, had a slight hand injury, according to a Washington Post report.

Investigators determined that the blast was triggered by a Sears garage door opener that had been taped to the side of the bomb. William H. Seals, a veteran of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, likened the explosive to the kind of weapon used “in professional hits in places like Las Vegas.”

“Whoever put it there didn’t realize how well-built a Mercedes is,” he told Washington City Paper in 2004. “If she had been in a Cadillac, she would have died, no doubt about it.”

The case was never solved, and investigators complained that Mrs. Casey and her family were uncooperative. She told detectives that she couldn’t imagine who might want to kill her, according to ATF reports, although some of her family members scoffed at that claim, noting that she had alienated relatives by inheriting so much of her late husband’s estate. “Who would want her dead? Just open the phone book and start with A,” said one anonymous relative in 1992.

Mrs. Casey was sued that year by 10 of her husband’s 11 grandchildren, who argued that she had manipulated Eugene Casey into cutting them out of his will, which left $1 million to each of his six children, all from previous marriages. She hired Sullivan, who had represented Oliver L. North in the Iran-contra hearings, and prevailed in court.

The trial offered a rare glimpse into her personal life and views on philanthropy, with Mrs. Casey testifying that she became involved with her husband’s work only reluctantly in the 1980s. “I don’t like business. … My husband told me you had to be hard … and let people, even if they were friends, know that you were tough and you were strong,” she said. “And he was right.”

The oldest of three daughters, Betty Brown was born in Sykesville, Md., on April 27, 1927, and grew up in a rural patch of Carroll County, where many homes lacked electricity. Her two sisters survive her, but additional information on survivors was not immediately available.

Mrs. Casey never spoke publicly about her childhood, but an acquaintance once told The Post that her father drove long-distance trucks and then taxis in Baltimore. Her mother was a house mother for nurses and later worked at a psychiatric hospital.

Mrs. Casey won a scholarship to Washington College in Chestertown, where she studied biology and psychology. After graduating in 1947 she worked for eight years at the Rosewood State Training School, an institution outside Baltimore for people with mental disabilities. She also studied at Catholic University for a master’s degree in psychiatric social work, and for a time she lived with a cousin whose husband was the superintendent of Eugene Casey’s farm in Gaithersburg.

The phantom patron of the opera: Betty Brown Casey's journey from Sykesville to Washington

It was there, apparently, that she met her future husband, whom she married in 1955 after his two previous marriages ended in divorce. He was 24 years her senior, once tabbed as a potential Senate candidate before being convicted of federal income tax evasion in 1947. He was pardoned by President Harry S. Truman but enmeshed in scandal once again in the 1970s, when he was the self-described frontman in a Marlboro Race Track scheme to enrich supporters of Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel. (He was never charged with a crime.)

But by all accounts, Mrs. Casey was far more interested in music than her husband’s business affairs. She served on the board of the Washington National Opera since 1974, when the company was known as the Opera Society of Washington, and she donated $18 million to the company in 1996 so that it could purchase the old Woodward & Lothrop department store building to use as its new home.

The 10-story building was purchased at a bankruptcy auction, and I.M. Pei’s architecture firm was enlisted to overhaul the space. But the plan proved too costly, with renovations estimated at $200 million. The opera company signed a new lease at the Kennedy Center, and the building sat vacant until 1999, when it was sold for $28 million.

The proceeds were put toward the opera company’s once-meager endowment, which was then named for Mrs. Casey’s late husband. By 2010, the year before the opera company merged with the Kennedy Center, her donations constituted “between one-half and two-thirds” of the total endowment, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

“She contributed significantly for many years, generously donating millions of dollars to the organization,” said Francesca Zambello, the company’s artistic director. “She cared passionately about opera and was very civically minded, believing in the importance of Washington National Opera having its own identity. She was also extremely committed to diversity,” asking if there could “be more people of color in the productions” and “more collaborations” with the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a Washington public school.

After the Woodward & Lothrop project, Mrs. Casey was involved in another high-profile real estate deal in 2001, when she bought a 16.5-acre estate in Washington’s tony Foxhall neighborhood and announced that she wanted to turn it into a permanent residence for the mayor, with an eye toward hosting official functions and greeting visiting dignitaries there. District officials were already considering the idea of an official residence, and, while they had contemplated something closer to downtown, the offer of a free mayoral mansion was hard to resist.

The project proved deeply divisive, with opponents bristling at the idea of D.C.'s mayor living in a lavishly decorated home — Mrs. Casey reportedly purchased $2 million of furniture and fixtures before the mansion was designed — in one of the city’s most affluent areas. Mrs. Casey battled with neighbors, city officials and the National Park Service before abandoning her plan in late 2003. Instead of building a mansion on the property, she donated the land to the Salvation Army.