Celebrated philanthropist Tensie Oldfather dies

Tensie Oldfather is named the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce's Citizen of the Year in this March 2004 file photo. At left is chamber Chairman Larry McElwain. Oldfather, a noted Lawrence philanthropist, died Tuesday.

Hortense “Tensie” Oldfather never stopped giving.

During the last six weeks of her life, her name kept popping up in news articles describing acts of philanthropy.

Money to help preserve the Kansas prairie? Check.

A donation to help preserve an old windmill? Check.

Funds for a women’s action group at Kansas University? Check.

Support for the River City Reading Festival? Check. The list goes on and on.

Giving was a habit for Oldfather. It was her $4 million gift in 2000 that established the Douglas County Community Foundation, which in recent years has provided grants and funding to more than three dozen nonprofit organizations across the community.

On Tuesday evening, Oldfather died at a Kansas City hospice. But her friends and colleagues said her generosity will live on.

“She was an extremely dynamic woman who believed in doing good,” said Barbara Carswell, who served on the foundation’s board with Oldfather.

Obituary information was not immediately available. But the outlines of her life were well-known, thanks to her long list of charitable acts.

She moved to Lawrence from Milwaukee in 1950, when her husband, Charles Oldfather Jr., joined the Kansas University law faculty. He died in 1996.

Over the years, Tensie Oldfather was active in Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, Head Start and the American Red Cross – she joked that she could walk down the street and identify passersby by blood type, thanks to the latter organization’s blood drives.

Support for KU

And she loved KU. The couple donated millions of dollars to community organizations and KU, including the Oldfather Studios, which house KU’s film department. She also gave $1 million to help Kansas Public Radio move into a new studio in 2002.

At a ceremony to honor Oldfather in 2005, KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway expressed his thanks.

“I am in debt to Tensie for her kindness, generosity and wisdom,” he said.

Those who knew Oldfather said she lived simply, preferring to spend her money and energy in support of people and organizations that improved Lawrence.

“Through good fortune, her family obviously accumulated some wealth,” said Monte Johnson, a member of the Douglas County Community Foundation board. “She made unbelievable use of those resources to benefit people, to benefit organizations, to benefit the university.”

The foundation was perhaps her greatest legacy: Her $4 million gift had grown to a $10 million endowment by 2005, thanks to contributions from other individuals and businesses. The same year, the foundation made $186,000 in grants to 38 nonprofit organizations across the county.

“Her foresight … and her amazing generosity in funding the foundation initially, provided the funds for the present and the future of Lawrence and Douglas County,” said Chip Blaser, executive director of the foundation. “That’s not just for this year or next year. That’s for an ongoing basis.”

That generosity inspired others, Blaser said.

“She really set a tone,” he said. “Her spirit of giving led many others to be involved in philanthropy in the community. That’s to her everlasting credit, and really will be her legacy.”