The first decision Carolyn Lynch made as president of her family’s foundation was to make her husband, Peter, head of the investment committee.
“I figured I can do no wrong,” she said.
That was 25 years ago, and today the Lynches, through their foundation and personal fortune, have donated more than $100 million to education, becoming a low-key force that has saved inner city Catholic schools and helped reshape charter and district public schools in Boston.
“You cannot go anywhere in the education of children and not find the fingerprints of Carolyn and Peter,” said Jack Connors, a close friend and longtime supporter of Catholic schools.
Peter Lynch, of course, is the legendary Fidelity money manager, the tall guy with a Warholian tuft who became a household name in the 1980s and 1990s, even appearing in TV commercials touting his stock-picking prowess.
At 69, Peter has now spent more time giving away money than managing the Magellan Fund, but he and his wife continue to apply the same techniques to their philanthropy that he used to rack up double-digit returns at Fidelity. They do hands-on research, they look for undervalued programs with big potential, and they track their return on investment.
“I want to be surprised,” said Peter, strolling with Carolyn, 67, through the Eliot K-8 Innovation School in the North End. “Like the stock market, we’re always looking for a good idea versus a great idea.”
The Eliot school is an example of the Lynches’ money at work. Incredibly, the school features nine different programs they’ve funded.
For example, the principal, Traci Griffith, is a graduate of the Lynch Leadership Academy at Boston College, a program that trains principals from the city’s Catholic, charter, and district public schools.
Already, more than a third of Boston public school principals have gone through the three-year-old program, made possible with a $20 million Lynch gift.
Emily Bozeman is training at the Eliot as part of the Lynches’ Aspiring Principal Program, which launched this year to create a pipeline of future school leaders.
The Eliot was the first Boston public school to adopt the Achievement Network, a program that trains teachers and assesses classroom performance several times a year to help students prepare for the MCAS.
ANET, as it is known, is now being rolled out to 75 Boston public schools over the next five years through a Lynch donation.
A renovated playground comes courtesy of the Lynches’ support of the Boston Schoolyard Initiative, a public-private partnership to create playgrounds and outdoor classroom space at 88 elementary schools.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino recently saw the Lynches at a ribbon-cutting at the Higginson/Lewis K-8 school in Roxbury.
“Some givers want to give speeches,” said Menino. “They just sit there very quietly, very unassuming.”
Yet, Menino added, that the Lynches have been “giants” in their generosity to schools.
John McDonough, interim superintendent of the Bostonpublic schools, estimates “hundreds of thousands of students” have benefited from the Lynches’ largesse.
Education has played a big role in the couple’s own lives. Carolyn’s father was a science teacher and later principal in a tiny town in Delaware. Peter’s father died when he was 10; he grew up with modest means but was fortunate to have good teachers and a support system in Newton public schools.
The Lynches have focused on K-12 education, believing that’s where they can have most impact — by helping kids early in life.
“Looking back, I was damned lucky. I won the lottery,” said Peter. “We’re just trying to give the same opportunities to other children . . . Some people think public schools are hopeless. We don’t think that is true. We think they can get a lot better.”
Beyond money, they give their time. The foundation receives several hundred requests a year, and Carolyn vets the final round of three to four dozen, personally visiting schools and programs once a week, on average, to determine if they’re a worthy investment.
Peter spends several months a year raising money for the Inner City Scholarship Fund, which helps low-income students attend Catholic schools in Greater Boston.
He has chaired the scholarship fund for two decades, hitting up 250 donors a year, with phone calls and handwritten notes. He has helped raise a total of $125 million, enabling 5,000 children each year to go to school with an average scholarship of $1,400.
It sounds impressive, but Peter, without missing a beat, reminds me just how many more students don’t get helped. “Nine thousand,” he said, “get zero.”
Connors, cofounder of the Hill Holliday ad agency, knows all about Lynch’s annual pleas. And every year Connors gives in — to the tune of about $50,000.
“If I had never met him,” said Connors, “I would have saved about three million bucks.”
Connors, who is chairman of the Campaign for Catholic Schools, estimates the Lynches’ commitment through scholarships and direct donations probably saved dozens of parish schools.
“In 1965, there were 250 parish Catholic schools K-8; today about 90,” said Connors. “ Without Peter and Carolyn’s leadership, it would probably be 50.”
Peter retired from the Magellan Fund in 1990, when he was 46, burned out from 70-hour work weeks, but he continues to invest, putting foundation money into a couple hundred stocks.
While at Magellan, the only stock fund he has ever managed, Lynch racked up an average annual return of 29 percent from 1977 to 1990, growing the portfolio from $20 million to $14 billion.
He won’t divulge the foundation’s returns but described them as “spectacular.”
Take a look: The Lynches seeded the foundation with about $17 million deposited over several years. The assets have ballooned to $125 million, even as the Lynches pulled out $80 million in grants.
“People would have been happy to have their money in the Lynch Foundation,” he said.
After all these years, Peter Lynch can still spin magic with stocks. The only difference now is that he’s doing it for a cause.
Shirley Leung can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @leung.