Lessons in Legacy: The Laros Family Gift

For late Lehigh Valley industrialist R.K. Laros, family and community were everything. Born into a working class family, it was his entrepreneurial spirit that enabled him to establish a thriving textile mill in the early 20th century and eventually a foundation dedicated to fulfilling his philanthropic ideals into future generations. Laros’ great-grandchildren, acting on behalf of their family’s foundation, recently made two generous gifts to Lehigh to support students and the Clayton University Center that honored the priorities that Laros and his wife, Helen, held dear.

The Laros “4Gs” Arrive at Lehigh

It was serendipitous that five of R.K. Laros’ great-grandchildren — the fourth generation, or “4Gs” as they refer to themselves — ended up as students at Lehigh at the same time. While the foundation had made several smaller gifts in decades past, the family didn’t have any real ties to Lehigh until siblings Janelle ’21 and Russell K. Laros IV ’18, Peik ’18 and Truman Shelton ’21, and cousin Alexandra Ladda ’20 decided to attend Lehigh. All were students during the 2017-2018 academic year, but had not spent much time together growing up as cousins because of geographical distance. They became much closer, thanks to talks between Sharon Zondag, executive director for the R.K. Laros Foundation, and Victoria Aitchison, Lehigh’s director of development, Parents’ Program.

In 2014, when the first of the cousins, Russ and Peik, came to Lehigh, Zondag and Aitchison began discussing ways that the Laros Foundation and the university could work together. Zondag was looking for a meaningful way to involve the fourth generation of Laros family members in the work of the foundation.
As a framework, Aitchison used a report from the National Center for Family Philanthropy, The Power to Produce Wonders.

“The report provided the vision and principles of family philanthropy that we used to guide our work with the Laros family,” Aitchison said.  

Teaching the next generation to appreciate both the blessing and responsibility of family philanthropy is something Laros Foundation Chair R. Keller Laros III ’18P ’21P takes seriously.

“My grandfather established a foundation with a wonderful ethos, and I’m in the very fortunate position of being able to participate in philanthropy because of it,” Laros said. “The trick is getting our children to understand what a fulfilling gift they’ve been given. I’m not sure they understood before the impact that we make in others’ lives.”

With approval for the partnership project from Laros III, Vice Chair Laura Bennett Shelton, and Laros Foundation trustees, Lehigh took the lead in engaging the students in the work of philanthropy. The five were given an opportunity to consider several projects and decide whether or not they wanted to recommend funding.

Zondag and Aitchison decided that the eldest students’ senior year would be the perfect time for the 4Gs to gather and  evaluate the philanthropy project and then make a recommendation to the Laros Foundation board.                                                                                                                    
“All five of the students came to that first meeting,” Aitchison remembered. “They were all on the same campus, but had never been in a room together. They were excited to get started and learn about opportunities to make a difference at Lehigh.”    

Learning the Lessons of Family Philanthropy

With guidance from Lehigh University Development and Alumni Relations staff, the students took ownership and navigated through the questions and different interests of philanthropic giving. They focused on three gift options, setting up meetings with various staff members to learn everything they needed to know.

The final decision, which involved a gift and an endowment, was made by all five cousins collectively. They created a presentation and recommended a path for investment to their family’s foundation board. The learning experience also helped both third- and fourth-generation Laros descendants grow closer to one another.

At an event on Nov. 8, 2018, the three cousins who are still students came together with Laros family members and trustees, as well as Lehigh staff, to present the foundation’s gifts. A check was presented to be used in the renovation of the Clayton University Center, specifically for a community service office to be named for the Laros family. It was important to the students that one of their gifts reach as many Lehigh students as possible, and they agreed that the Clayton University Center was a common touchpoint for all of them.

The second gift established the R.K. Laros Foundation Inc. Endowed Prize for Entrepreneurship, Creativity & Innovation to be awarded to students who have participated in learning opportunities in Lehigh’s Baker Institute.

Honoring their Great-grandfather’s Legacy

Both the community service office and the entrepreneurship prize were purposely an homage to R.K. Laros and his legacy.

“We went over the values of the foundation, and what our great-grandfather would have wanted,” explained Janelle Laros ’21. “That definitely impacted our decision.”

Laura Bennett Shelton ’18P ’21P is very proud of the job her sons and their cousins did.

“We wanted our children to learn that philanthropy requires responsibility, research, and careful consideration. It’s not as easy as you think!” she said. “They’re beginning to understand that it’s a privilege that we have the opportunity to give.”

The planning and execution of their philanthropy was a capstone moment for the students to fully participate in the living legacy of their great-grandfather, who R. Keller Laros III said “would be very proud of them. Now the R.K. Laros Foundation is forever affiliated with Lehigh.”

The 4Gs were grateful for the opportunities the experience gave them.

“I didn’t know my cousins that well before, and it was great to get to know them and other family members better,” said Alexandra Ladda ’20. “And it made me feel closer to the university.”

“It gave me a sense of my history, and my own identity,” Truman Shelton ’21 said. “Instead of just following others, I can add a part. It was a great experience.”

Story by Cynthia Tintorri

Photos by John Kish IV