Simple ideals, powerful influence: Remembering Dick Larry

Editor’s note: Richard M. “Dick” Larry, one of the conservative movement’s most influential grantmakers, died on July 6, 2013, at the age of 77. Larry, who worked quietly behind the scenes, agreed to an interview for the alumni magazine of his alma mater, Grove City College, in the spring of 1999. We post that article here in honor of Mr. Larry, who, by the way, suggested the name for our think tank, The Center for Vision & Values, which is derived from a publication created by his friend and now-retired Grove City College professor, John Sparks.

The former Marine Corps sergeant began our four-hour meeting in his spacious 39th floor office overlooking Pittsburgh’s downtown landscape. We talked in a sitting area several feet removed from his desk. No doubt he has conducted hundreds of these relaxed conversations over the past 30 years.

A tall man with graying hair, he wore rimless glasses, a charcoal suit, perfect white shirt, snappy black winged-tip shoes and a Heritage Foundation tie. Urbane, he speaks in a gentle and sophisticated manner. His favorite Amphora pipe tobacco accents the room. “We have kept a very low-key profile,” said Richard Larry who is one of the American conservative movement’s most active persons “and we very much prefer it that way.”

Larry is a 1960 Grove City College graduate and vice chairman of the College’s board of trustees. He is also president of the $350 million Sarah Scaife Foundation. As president, Larry is the foundation’s hands-on director working for Chairman Richard Mellon Scaife. According to the Washington Post, “Scaife’s philanthropy has had a disproportionate impact on the rise of the right, perhaps the biggest story in American politics in the last quarter century.” Mr. Scaife is the man Hillary Rodham Clinton accused as being the architect of the “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Mrs. Clinton’s proclamation thrust publicity-shy Scaife and Larry into the white-hot spotlight of legal, political and journalistic investigations. The findings were benign and unsurprising: Richard Mellon Scaife is a conservative and his foundations successfully fund conservative causes.  The Washington Post says of Scaife, “His biggest contribution has been to help fund the creation of the modern conservative movement.”

Larry, the son of an Armco steel mill electrical engineer, grew up in Butler, Pennsylvania. After graduating from high school in 1953, he and some friends spent the summer laboring for Bethlehem Steel’s Lackawanna Works in Buffalo, New York. “When the union went on strike, a friend and I enlisted in the Marine Corps,” said Larry. After serving in Europe and Latin America “without ever firing a shot in anger” Larry was honorably discharged as a sergeant in 1956.

Larry was a “non-traditional” college student. At age 21 and with the GI Bill in hand, Larry enrolled as a business administration student at Westminster College. A year later he married his beloved Lois, whom he had known since the sixth grade, and transferred to Grove City College. He left Westminster for practical reasons—he and Lois were living in Butler because she had a job there and his commute was shorter to Grove City. The GI Bill covered most of his Grove City expenses and a group of Butler area veterans had established carpools to the college.

Graduating with a degree in economics and a view of the world shaped largely by economics professor Dr. Hans Sennholz, Larry went to New York University to study economics under Austrian economist and Sennholz mentor Ludwig Von Mises. Larry earned a fellowship from the Michigan-based Earhart Foundation. After studying at NYU, Larry returned to Pittsburgh in 1961 to work in management for US Steel. He joined Scaife in 1969.

“Did the Korean War and the national turmoil of 1968 affect your career decisions?” I asked. “I wish I could say I had a grand plan for my career. But, you learn at some point in your life that you simply have to work hard and devote your time and attention to the job. You get some breaks and things tend to go well. I know that is not a very interesting answer, but that is just the way my career developed,” he said almost apologetically.

Forty-five minutes passed. Larry suggested we continue our conversation over lunch. He didn’t tell me where we were going, but I assumed our destination would be Pittsburgh’s Duquesne Club.

As we walked along busy Smithfield Street on a beautiful spring day, two Harley Davidson motorcycles passed us. A peaceful sense of exhilaration came over Larry, “Now that’s freedom,” he mused. “Do you ride a Harley?” I asked. “No. I ride a BMW  K 1200 LT.” Larry responded. “It’s the finest touring motorcycle in the world. Its technology far surpasses that of a Harley Davidson and it’s superior to my Honda Gold Wing. The BMW has a reverse gear, cruise control, heated grips, a six-changer CD player, a cellular telephone and the smoothest transmission ever invented for an eight hundred pound bike.” “Does Lois ride?” I asked. “No, she wouldn’t get on one for a bet!  But, she allows me to keep both bikes,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.

Turning down Sixth Avenue, we entered the prestigious Duquesne Club. I asked, “Do you eat here most days?” “No, most of the time I grab a sandwich from the bagel shop across the street and eat in the office. It’s the only time I have to catch up on reading,” he replied.

During the next two and one-half hours I learned that Richard Larry enjoys his grandchildren, long relationships, the simple things of life and that he appreciates quality. He is proud of his two married daughters, Elizabeth ’82 and Susan ’89, both Grove City College graduates. He takes little or no credit for the Sarah Scaife Foundation’s successes. “With Dick’s (Scaife) obvious interest and concurrence we have been doing some very good programming with some very good people,” said Larry.

That is an understatement!  Among others, the foundation played a major role in the development of the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institution, The Cato Institute, The American Enterprise Institute, The Pacific Legal Foundation and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The foundation has also funded a number of prominent journals and influential authors.

Characteristically reserved, Larry became enthusiastic when discussing the successful people who have received Scaife funding. He shared the foundation’s secret of success: “I learned at Grove City College that there are enduring principles and values. When the foundation finds people who share these values and their work is of high quality, we tend to stay with them. We have grant relationships going back 40 years.” He added, “We do our work quietly. The people whom we fund should get the credit for their success.”

Using Grove City College President John Moore as an illustration Larry said, “John Moore is a good example of a quality person who does quality work. We have been fortunate to be associated with him for 30 years.” Larry chaired the board of trustees’ search committee who brought Dr. Moore to Grove City College in 1996. “My role in the search process was simply to see if John was willing to interview. He interviewed with past Board Chairman Albert Hopeman and Al immediately saw the value of John Moore as president of Grove City College,” Larry explained.

Grove City College has recognized the value of Richard Larry as well. In 1983 he won the college’s Alumni Achievement Award. In 1988 he was elected an alumni trustee, representing the college’s Alumni Council on the board of trustees. In 1992 he was elected a regular member of the board of trustees. In 1993 he was elected to the board’s executive committee and in 1998 he was elected vice chairman of the board.

“Grove City College is made up of quality people and programs. As measured by SAT scores, the quality of our student body is on an upward sloping curve. Our challenge is to get the best quality students and give them the best quality education. Clearly, we are attracting well-balanced students. If we were going for SAT scores alone we would become an educational boutique and that’s not what we’re going to do. At the end of the day, it is quality that will prevail. That’s exactly what we’re about at Grove City College and I think we’re doing a first class job,” said the trenchant Larry.

The end of our day was approaching. We departed the Duquesne Club and the conversation turned happily to Lois and the Larrys’ 42-year marriage. It was at that moment that I grasped the essence of Richard Larry. He appreciates long relationships and finds joy in them. He appreciates quality work in support of freedom and limited government, and he finds joy in it. Those simple ideals make Richard Larry one America’s most important grantmakers … and a superb Grove City College trustee.