Philanthropist & Director of the Dorothy G. Bender Foundation
A native-born Washingtonian, Grace Bender’s professional life took her into the world of politics. But, she is many things: Morty’s wife, Jack’s mother and a philanthropist of some repute in the nation’s capital. Always ready to help raise funds for prominent local causes such as The Kennedy Center and Lungevity, Grace seeks out and supports young and recently established charities focused on changing the lives of the less fortunate.
Where were you raised?
I was born in Washington, D.C., a real native. I lived here for the first year or two of my life before my parents moved to Maryland.
How did your father’s profession influence you?
My father was in the restaurant business and was the manager of the casino at the Hotel Nacional in Havana for a few years. We lived in Cuba until Fidel Castro, the Communist revolutionary, started trying to take over.
What fundamental beliefs are instilled in you from that experience…or simply put, what was your takeaway?
The people in Cuba were just amazing, very loving and they appreciated life. What happened to the country after Castro took over is just pitiful. It showed me that you can have a great country, and the wrong leader can destroy it.
When was the last time you visited Cuba, and how was that experience?
Two years ago, my sister and I went back to visit. It had not changed much at all. It was as if time stood still. I said, “Let’s go find the apartment we grew up in.” We went into Miramar, which is just outside of Havana, and we found the apartment. The taxi driver that took us there asked if we’d like to meet the woman who lived there now. I said “Yes,” but I asked, “How could we do that?” He said, “Come. We will just knock on her door.” He explained that he would tell her who we were, and she welcomed us. We did it, and it brought back so many memories of living in that very apartment.
Where is your family now?
My sister lives in Maryland. She’s not far away. My brother lives on the Eastern Shore, Saint Michaels, also in Maryland, and we’re a very close-knit family. My mother, sadly, died at 78 years old, and my father died at 95. They were married close to 60 years. He was born in Washington D.C. His house was at the entrance to the Commerce Building on 14th Street; a true native Washingtonian.
Your profession was in both PR and government affairs?
I moved back to D.C. in my twenties and loved all the different jobs. I never worked on Capitol Hill, but I worked the Hill, and that was very interesting. Originally, I worked in governmental affairs, and then, eventually, I gravitated to public relations. After my husband and I married in ‘79, I became involved in philanthropy and spent the next 40 years chairing almost everything in this city. Donating is nice, and it is easy to write the check if you have the money, but I think it is more important to give of yourself, your time.
What criteria do you look for when you support a philanthropy?
I prefer to help charities that are young or recently established and don’t have “Who’s Who of America” on their boards. I like to help the underdog charities. The help I give is across the board. People think I support a lot of cultural charities and I do, but I love to help those organizations that need it the most. I was cochair of the Spring Gala at the Kennedy Center, the opening night of the Opera and the Symphony. But, I also contributed to and worked with For Love of Children (FLOC), So Others May Eat (SOME) and MANNA, a charitable firm that bought old abandoned houses in the city, rebuilt them and sold them to people who otherwise would never have been able to afford a home. So that I loved.
Why do you give?
It’s very simple. I came from a very middle-class family. I had relatives and friends that were poor, and I saw a lot of hardships. I always thought, if I ever had money, I would want to give it away. My favorite television show was The Millionaire. Do you remember that show? John Beresford Tipton, Jr. sat behind his desk, and you never saw his face. He would give people a million-dollar check. That was who I wanted to be. I just fantasized about how that could change a person’s life. When Morty and I were married, I felt so fortunate to not have to worry about paying the rent or putting food on the table that I wanted to give back. Morty was very generous in letting me donate money to many causes in the city, but I never gave it unless I got involved in the organization.
You established a foundation?
We did, and it’s named the Dorothy G. Bender Foundation after my husband’s mother.
Is philanthropy your avocation?
Yes, because working on all these different causes has given me tremendous satisfaction. One of the most rewarding charities I ever worked on honored a friend who had died of lung cancer. I was friendly with her daughter, and she asked me to chair the first event. I decided to do a dinner at the Andrew Mellon Auditorium.
Another friend said to me, “Grace, Why don’t you start small?
Do a little luncheon? Do a tea?” I said, “You know what? It will take just as much of my time to call, to write letters and to do all of this for a small event as a large event. So, I might as well go for the gold.” We raised one million net in 2011 for LUNGevity which put them on the map. That was great satisfaction for me.
Is there one initiative you have undertaken that dramatically moved the philanthropy forward?
I try to do that with all of them, but I’ll give you an example. We had not been married very long, and I met Reverend Jim Dickerson, who ran a charity called MANNA. The men on his payroll renovated houses that had been boarded up in D.C. He couldn’t make his payroll at one point and was unable to secure a bank loan. I had a hundred thousand dollars to my name in my savings at that time. I loaned him the entire $100,000. I remember my husband saying, “Well, I guess that’s the last you’ll see of that.” I knew he would give it back to me. He not only paid every penny back, he insisted on paying one or two percent interest. If I hadn’t given him the bridge loan, he would have had to shut down. I think about how many people have homes because of this organization. Those things are very rewarding and normally do not get written about in the newspaper. My picture has been in the paper for chairing an event but usually a cultural charity. While it’s true I support all of those, it is the things that nobody knows about that I really love helping the most.
How did you meet your husband, Morty Bender?
There was a restaurant in Washington called Paul Young’s, and it was in the Bender Building. A friend of mine said, “Let’s have dinner there.” There was a table filled with men not much farther than where you are sitting. An elderly gentleman named Milton Kronheim would lean back in his chair and start talking to me. He was about 85 or 86 at the time. He said, “There’s a slightly younger bachelor here,” and he introduced me to Morty. At the end of the dinner, we chatted a little bit.
Was it love at first sight?
No, not at all. I was getting ready to go to the South of France with my girlfriend. He told me that he would ask a friend who was French for the names of restaurants in Paris and Monte Carlo for me. I think it was an excuse to get my phone number. The next day, he called me and gave me all the restaurant names. He said, “Now they’re very inexpensive, but they’re really good.” I thanked him, crumbled up the paper and threw it away. I thought this may be the only time I go to Paris and the South of France, and I am not going to worry about the cost of dining because I wanted to go to the best and have that experience. My friend and I had a lovely time. We ate in some of the finest restaurants, and I honestly didn’t mind spending my money for those fabulous meals. I came back and ran into him again at the same restaurant. He said, “You were supposed to call me when you got back from your trip.” I did tell him a lie because he was with a gentleman. I said “Oh, I did. Didn’t you get the message?” He said, “No, but call me. I want to hear about your trip.” A week later, I was parking in the Bender Building, and they announced that I couldn’t park unless I paid $5.00 a day. I did not want to have to pay every day and asked if I could just pay a monthly rate. They replied that there were no more monthly parking spaces left. I said, “What are you talking about? I have been parking here every day.” I learned that the owners of the building had taken the parking for their employee’s cars. So, I thought, I will call that man that I met because I think he was one of the owners of the building. So I called him and said, “I’m not asking for free parking. I’ll pay for it. I just don’t want to pay the $5.00 every day.” He said, “It will cost you a dinner.” I said, “Okay. I’m happy to buy you dinner.” We went to dinner, and I realized how smart he was, and how much fun he was. We started dating in October, and by the end of November, we had taken our first trip together. On the plane coming home, he said to me, “Write down when you think we’ll get married, and I’ll write down when I think.” He got some paper from the stewardess, and we wrote down what we both thought. Morty asked me what I wrote, and I said, “It’s your game. What did you write?” And he said, “June.” Now, mind you, this is November. I asked him, “Why June?” He said, “Well, you look like the type that wants to be a June bride.” He then asked me what I wrote. I said, “December. You look like the type that wants a tax deduction.” We were married in December. The irony of the story is that my little income took him into the next tax bracket, so there was no tax advantage.
Tell me about your son Jack.
Jack lives in Bethesda, Maryland, and he is named after my husband’s father. We adopted him when he was five days old. My husband had called his father J.B. because they worked together. Jack was never called Jack until he turned 30. He was always J.B. He is the love of our lives. He and his wife, Nina, have just given us a beautiful baby girl named Amelia. Just seeing her giggle brings me joy. Jack can charm anyone. He’s very articulate. He’s an excellent writer. He grew up with older parents, and we entertained everyone from neighbors and family to members of Congress, Ambassadors and various Secretaries in the various administrations. They were just people to him. He learned to talk to them. He has an ability to make you feel at ease, and he is so genuine. He is truly loved, an old soul. We were so blessed to be given him to raise.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
My greatest accomplishment is raising this young man to be someone I’m very proud of. I think he will give back to society as well.
What life lesson would you want others to know?
It’s very important that people learn, at a very young age, to save. Too many of the young people today buy whatever the latest craze is for the moment and spend every dollar they have. I started saving when my aunts and uncles would put $5.00 in a Valentine card or an Easter card. When I was very young, I had a passbook from a local bank. Remember bank passbooks? While I spend a lot of money, and my husband will attest to that, I also know how to save and how to invest. I have made some very wise decisions in the stock market as has our son. When he was very young, he was not good in math. I decided to teach him something practical. We went to a bank on Connecticut Avenue, where thirty years ago, they still had passbooks. When they stamped the interest, he said, “Mom, that’s not very much money.” I said, “If you want to make money, you should buy stocks.” He wanted to know what stocks were. That night, Bill Gates was on television and was declared one the wealthiest men in the world. “Oh, mom, he’s so young. Let’s buy some stock in his company,” he said. We did. That summer we were in Nantucket, and I was telling Steven Rales, a neighbor and friend who owned Danaher, what I did with J.B. I thought the story was funny. Steven asked me to call my son up to where we were. He said, “I’m not Bill Gates yet, but some day my company’s going to make a lot of money too. You should buy into my company.” That night he said, “Mom, Steven is the same age as dad’s children, and he’s got a big house in our neighborhood, and he has a house in Nantucket. He even has an airplane. Do I have enough money in my account to invest?” I said yes, and we bought a few shares and continued to invest in stocks. The only investment that my husband thought was very funny was when J.B. bought stock in Pepco, our electric company. When we asked J.B. why he wanted Pepco, he said, “Because dad is always yelling – turn the computer off and turn the lights off. You need electricity.” So, of course, that one didn’t go up, but all his other stock purchases have gone up.
What do you fear?
That I will be old and alone. I love people, I love my family, and I love my friends. If I could, I would freeze everybody in time for a while because I get very attached to people. I’ve lost some girlfriends, and their deaths were very painful.
What makes you tick?
I think pleasing people and doing things for those that need help.
What are the most difficult things that you have overcome?
I have had 20 surgeries in my life and not plastic. These are real. When I was a child, I was cross-eyed. I had to have seven muscle surgeries, the last when I was in my forties. That was very difficult because children can be very cruel. They’d ask me, “Why aren’t you looking at me? What are you looking at?” Even though my parents took me to Wilmer Eye Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital, one of the best in the country, it wasn’t corrected. I had to live with that for a very long time. That was hard.
What did it teach you?
It taught me to never make fun of somebody who looks different or sounds different because I knew how hurtful it can be.
You are a stunningly beautiful woman and to have some wounds or scars from childhood based on the nastiness of others is sad to me.
But see, I never felt beautiful. It wasn’t until I was much older, and a man that I was dating said to me, “Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?” And I said, “Oh, stop it.” He said, “No, you are.” He said, “But what makes you even more beautiful is the beauty on the inside.” And he said, “Maybe you wouldn’t have had that inside beauty if you really knew what you looked like.” I’ll always remember that.
If you could ask God one question, what would it be?
Have I done enough, and is there anything more you want me to do?
You mentioned 20 surgeries. Seven related to the eye. Tell me about breast cancer.
I was in Sibley Hospital with my dad, who was being admitted for pneumonia, and I had bronchitis. I called my doctor and said, “I’m here. Can I get a chest x-ray because I think I have pneumonia as well?” The chest x-ray showed a very large spot on my lung, and my doctor ordered further tests. The weekend my father died, they told me I needed to see a pulmonary oncologist about the spot. I saw the oncologist, and he said he had seen my chest x-rays, but what was appearing to be a large mass on my lungs, wasn’t there a year ago. He asked when I had my last mammogram. I told him in September, and it was clear then. He asked if I had a colonoscopy, and I said I had one in October, and it was clear as well. He explained that I would have had to have cancer somewhere else in my body, and it would have had to spread to my lung for it to be that large compared to the previous year’s chest x-rays. Because I had large dense breasts and had just read that the best way to check for breast cancer was to have an MRI, I decided I wanted to have an MRI to be sure nothing was going on someplace else in my body. I called a breast surgeon. She was reluctant to order the test, but I was rather insistent, and she gave me a referral for one. I had a hard time getting the MRI appointment because the insurance companies didn’t want to pay for it. “Fine,” I said, “I’ll pay for it. I just need to have the peace of mind.” I wanted to be sure I did not have lung cancer. I also wanted to be sure I did not have breast cancer because my mother had had breast cancer. To everyone’s shock, the MRI showed I had cancer in three of the four quadrants of my left breast. While the spots were very small, they said it might have been several years before a mammogram would have picked it up. Breast cancer started a whole series of surgeries. I had nothing in my lymph nodes, but I opted to do a double mastectomy.
At the time, that was a little avant-garde?
Yes, it was in 2008. I just thought I don’t want to have to worry about having biopsies and tests if I had only had one mastectomy. A lot of women are very afraid of a double mastectomy because they feel like they won’t look as pretty or feel attractive. That might have been true years ago, but not today. It’s so amazing what they can do. I just never hesitated. I didn’t even give it a thought. Once I had both breasts removed, and had reconstruction, I never thought about it again, never thought, “I will get it again.” My breast cancer came at a time in my life when I was worried about so many things. I had so much stress going on that it didn’t even surprise me when they told me. I think we all have some cancer cells in our body, and when our immune system gets low because we’re stressed, it wreaks havoc. That’s one of the reasons I like to travel because I can decompress and just appreciate God’s world.
You have had a life well lived, Grace. What life lesson can you share with ELYSIAN readers?
I would tell them to always make time for themselves. Always. I would also tell any young woman, even if you have a child or more than one, always make time for your husband because it’s so easy to get so wrapped up in the children that you forget your other half. I think that’s extremely important. Finally, I believe every woman should have her own money. That way, she never will feel at the mercy of anyone, whether it’s her parents, a husband, a boyfriend. Women need to get out there and make their own money, save and invest.