By Maria Saporta
It was always a pleasure to receive hand-written letters from Don Gareis.
In his elegant penmanship, Gareis always had a supportive and positive message about a column I had written or observation that he had on Atlanta’s business and civic community.
And he always would sign off each letter with the following: “Your No. 1 fan.”
So when I heard Gareis had passed away on Jan. 13, I immediately felt the void he had left behind, not only my life but in the civic fabric of Atlanta.
When I first became aware of Gareis, he was the Atlanta-based public affairs director for Sears’ 13-state Southern territory. He ended up having a 37-year career with the national retailer.
Then in 1983, he was recruited by the late Ivan Allen III to become president of the Woodruff Arts Center. It was in that role that I first got to really know Gareis, who was known for his fundraising prowess as well as his people skills.
“Under Don’s leadership, endowment more than doubled,” wrote Joe Bankoff, the current president of the Woodruff Arts Center, in an email to his trustees. “Property important to the Center’s expansion was acquired, and the four divisions at the time — the Alliance Theatre Company, the Atlanta College of Art, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the High Museum of Art — experienced growth in the breadth and quality of their programs.”
Then, in 1990, Gareis retired from the Arts Center, but he didn’t finish contributing to the community.
“Don Gareis spent the last 17 years of his life being beloved at Coxe Curry,” said Ann Curry, owner of the Coxe Curry fund-raising firm, at his service on Tuesday. “He was the man who taught me how to fundraise.”
It was only a year after she bought the firm that she asked Gareis to come aboard to be “our mentor in residence.”
Gareis, who always liked being in the know of what was happening in Atlanta, was delighted. He would tell me how much he enjoyed being around all the young people (mostly women) at the energetic firm.
Curry said Gareis also would share his lessons of life with those around him. First on his list: “Marry your trophy wife first. It saves you time and trouble later.”
That was true Gareis. When he and I had lunch, he loved talking about his wife, Phyllis, and what a go-getter she was. I believe she sold Calphalon cookware and had been quite successful.
During all these years, Gareis kept writing me his encouraging letters, always ending with the words: “Your No. 1 fan. Don”
But as the years went by, he would tell me that he didn’t know the movers and shakers in Atlanta like he once did. But he would always add that he enjoyed reading about who was making a difference.
Sadly, today’s business and civic leaders probably were not aware of Gareis and all the ways he had contributed to our community, which is their loss.
Among the organizations he was involved with over the years included the Metropolitan Foundation of Atlanta, United Way, Emory University’s business school the Atlanta University Center, the first chair of Clark College’s board of visitors, Georgia Tech, the Georgia Council on Economic Education, Georgia Public Broadcasting, the Academy Theatre, the Atlanta Press Club, the Public Relations Society of America, the Southeastern Council on Foundations, the Metro Atlanta Chamber, the Aquinas Center of Theology at Emory University, the Atlanta Rotary Club and the Capital City Club.
So when Gareis died in his sleep at age 85, he could rest peacefully knowing he had done his part contributing to our community. And more importantly, he contributed to all of us who were lucky enough to become his friend, colleague and fan.