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'Champ' Sheridan: Leading the way by putting a name to giving

STORY BY MICHELLE GENZ, (Week of August 15, 2013)
Photo of Debbie Sheridan (center) with sketch of her late husband surrounded by family.

R. Champlin “Champ” Sheridan, the man who with his wife committed more than $2.5 million to Indian River Medical Center, among a multitude of other charitable gifts, was eulogized on Monday at a memorial service at Christ by the Sea United Methodist Church in Vero Beach as a man who inspired others to follow his example in charitable giving.

Sheridan died Aug. 7 at Hospice House following a long illness. He was 83. He was originally from Baltimore, where another memorial service will be held, and had been a part-time Vero Beach resident since 2002.

The many other causes that captured Sheridan’s heart included the Homeless Family Center, the Boys and Girls Club, the Humane Society and the Gifford Youth Activities Center. At the memorial service, Debbie Sheridan, his wife of 35 years, entered the sanctuary with several Gifford students, holding the hands of two of them.

They were the same students Sheridan honored last fall with a $50 bill, telling each of them to give it away to someone more in need than themselves. He then gave them another $50 to keep – but only once they’d given the first away.

Sheridan will probably leave his most lasting mark on the local hospital, on whose board he served. “He was a faithful strong member in good times and in bad. He had a quiet, thoughtful demeanor, with quiet strength and wisdom,” said Jack Rogers, chairman of the Indian River Medical Center Foundation.

Sheridan’s giving may have been grand, but his manner was understated. His leadership style was similarly subtle, said the hospital’s CEO, Jeff Susi. Sheridan asked questions so those who answered felt the ideas were their own. “He didn’t give orders, he asked thoughtful questions. It was always about everybody else,” Susi said.

The Sheridans were the first $1 million donors to the hospital’s 21st Century building fund. They allowed their name to be given to the new 14-bed intensive care unit that opened in February in the belief that they might inspire others to donate.  And in all, $52 million was raised.

The Sheridans also gave generously to Ellie McCabe’s efforts to bring University of Florida psychiatrists and fellows to Vero Beach to run a mental health clinic, the UF Center for Psychiatry and Addiction that opened in 2009. The Sheridans were “critical supporters,” according to McCabe Foundation Executive Director Lenora Ritchie, and underwrote an endowment for a community psychiatric fellow. Dr. Erwin Ramos, the fellow, is now training two more fellows.

Though he left most of the punch lines to his wife, Sheridan had “a dry wit that would pop out at the funniest times,” said Lorne Coyle, director of the Homeless Family Center, another Sheridan charity. Those who knew him were confident enough that they had a Vero Beach Charter High School student dress up as Marilyn Monroe to sing to him at a benefit. “He just loved it,” said Liz Mayo, a longtime volunteer for the homeless.

Sheridan would have preferred to remain an anonymous donor, but he was convinced to make his generosity public by his longtime friend and classmate from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, now New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who convinced Sheridan to attach his name to a $20 million gift to three libraries at their alma mater, renamed the Sheridan Libraries.

“From him I learned the Jewish perspective on charitable giving,” Champ said last fall in an interview with Vero Beach 32963. “When they built new synagogues, it took a lot of arm-twisting and a lot of it was done in public.  ‘Well, Joe over there is going to give X amount, and Jim, you and Charlie and Reuben, you should all be able to exceed that.’”

The Hopkins donation was decided upon over a lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – the Sheridans’ signature dish – in the kitchen of their Hanover, PA, farm, with Bloomberg, clad in jeans, an old sweater and sneakers, and Johns Hopkins university president Bill Richardson. Sheridan had been prompted by his longtime college friend Ross Jones (who would become his 32963 neighbor in Orchid) to begin supporting the library.

When Bloomberg asked for $20 million, Sheridan did some quick figuring – it was one-third of the value of his business, the Sheridan Group, printers of medical and scientific research. “The business had grown,” he said last fall. “It was worth $60 million. I’d have $40 million – more than enough to live on. (The gift) would never change my lifestyle. It would take care of our children. I didn’t want them to inherit too much so they didn’t have to do something productive in life.”

After returning from the Korean War, Sheridan went to work at his father’s Baltimore printing business, but later he took a job with a printer in Hanover, PA, called Everybody’s Poultry Magazine Publishing Co., far enough away not to compete with his dad.

He worked his way up to general manager and came up with $1,000 and a small loan to buy the company and changed the focus to scientific and medical publishing. He sold the business in 1998 to BostonBank and remained on the board until 2003.

When the Sheridans began spending half the year in Vero in 2002, he joined the local hospital foundation board, which led to a series of gifts. “We were going to give anonymously and they again asked us to use our name,” he said in last year’s interview. “A week later, (the late board member) Jack Kennedy came in and gave them a million-dollar check and there’s been seven or eight since then.”

Champ Sheridan is also survived by five children and 10 grandchildren.