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From humble beginnings to multimillion-dollar donors

“We accumulated a whole lot more than we ever paid any attention to,’’ said William Cummings, shown with his wife, Joyce.Bill Brett for The Boston Globe/Boston Globe

His father painted houses in Medford, raising a young family in a one-bedroom apartment atop a liquor store, a coin laundry, and a taxi stand on Salem Street.

His mother, the daughter of Irish immigrants, was a neighborhood fixture whose idea of socializing was knocking on doors, collecting coins for the March of Dimes or the Cancer Society.

When someone in the neighborhood died, Dorothy Cummings was the one who passed the basket to ensure there were flowers at the funeral parlor.

Through it all, their young son Bill watched. And he learned.

The lesson? It’s important to give back. Generosity is a virtue. Take care of those in need.


And so as William Cummings built a wildly successful career, first by supplying fruit punch dispensers to colleges and hospitals, he kept that lesson in mind. And as his fortune grew, fueled by substantial holdings in commercial real estate, it became the governing principle by which he and his wife, Joyce, lived.

“We accumulated a whole lot more than we ever paid any attention to,’’ he said. “It wasn’t a goal to get to a certain level of affluence. We just realized at some point as we started to look things over that there’s a lot of assets here. We didn’t ever develop a habit of seeing how much money we could spend. We never have and don’t want to now.’’

So what is William Cummings, now 80 years old, doing with his fortune? He’s giving it away.

In a breathtaking example of philanthropy, the Cummings Foundation this week will award 100 grants worth $100,000 apiece — $10 million in all. Again.

Yes, in what’s become an annual homage to the lessons learned from his parents, the Cummings fortune — more than $1 billion — is being given away, millions by millions. By the time he and his wife are done, some 90 percent of their fortune will belong to others and, upon their death, all of it will belong to posterity.


“So much of their giving is going to organizations that are at the sharp end of the unsolved problems of American life,’’ said Paul Grogan, president of The Boston Foundation, one of the region’s largest charities.

“They’re very humble people, and they’re trying to remedy the ills and the intractable problems that we have.’’

Bill and Joyce Cummings returned last week from a meeting of signatories to the Giving Pledge, the organization founded in 2010 by billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates to encourage the ultra-rich — the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent — to donate the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes or charities.

If you’re thinking golf outings or massages at some fancy spas, think again. Think people like T. Boone Pickens, Ted Turner, Mark Zuckerberg, and Cummings’s fellow Medford High School alumnus Michael Bloomberg. all hard at work doing good.

“We eat well and we dine well and drink well, I suppose,’’ Cummings said. “But we’re there for business.’’

As it turns out, it isn’t easy to give away $10 million year after year. The Cummings family enlists the support of 40 volunteers. There are bankers and college presidents. There also are employees of Cummings Properties — some custodians and carpenters — who vet the applications and whittle down the list of potential grantees.


“They love it,’’ Cummings said. “Everybody loves it.’’

The beneficiaries are spread across Essex, Middlesex, and Suffolk counties. Soup kitchens. Neighborhood centers. Homeless shelters. Boys & Girls clubs. Senior centers. The Pine Street Inn.

“It’s very rewarding to see what comes out of what we’re able to give monetarily,’’ said Joyce Cummings, who met the man who would become her husband in 1964 in the kitchen of Massachusetts Eye and Ear where she worked as a dietitian and he was on a fruit juice sales call.

“We do it because we feel it’s the right thing to do,’’ she said. “Neither Bill nor I have any desire to live in a grand, high lifestyle. We have nice cars. We’ve always had nice homes. We eat well. We dress well. But we’re not jet-setters and have never wanted to be. That’s not who we are. How does this make us feel? It’s very rewarding.’’

Joyce Cummings said she always stops short when she hears people say: Well, if I had your money, here’s what I would do. Generosity, she said, does not have to be a hypothetical concept, something dependent on a bank account’s bottom line.

“It doesn’t matter who you are or what you have, almost everyone — everyone that we know and everyone that you know — can give in some way, monetarily or with time: helping in a church or in a food pantry. There’s so many ways for people to give. And it’s not the amount that you give, or the amount that you have. It’s that you do something positive to help humanity.’’


I asked Joyce and Bill Cummings what it was like for their children to learn that the fortune their parents had amassed would be given away to others.

It’s easy to imagine harsh words at the family supper table, thrown cutlery, along with some tears. What? You’ve giving it all away!

“It didn’t exactly happen that way,’’ Joyce said. “It was a gradual thing over the years that we talked about with our kids. We were giving money away, but not a lot of people knew it because we hadn’t gone public in any way. But we talked about what was there for them and they understood that.’’

Their daughter Marilyn, a pediatrician who examines medical research ethics in New York, said her parents have provided her and her siblings money that serves as a financial safety net.

She and her husband, the parents of two children, have good jobs. And, as it turns out, good values.

“Somebody once said: Give your kids enough so they can do anything, but not enough so that they can do nothing,’’ Marilyn said.

“We have a responsibility to the people around us. We were all fortunate in my family to grow up in an environment of opportunity.

“Neither of my parents grew up with any money, but they grew up in two-parent families. They grew up in stable homes. They were not a persecuted minority. They grew up to get excellent educations. They both had two hard-working parents who loved them. And I and my siblings had all of those opportunities multiplied a few times. They’re not giving away everything and living in a hovel. What they’ve done is to recognize that there is real excess out there and there is an opportunity to make the world a better place.”


That’s quite a lesson — one that Bill Cummings choked up over on Friday afternoon when I asked him about it in his Woburn office.

It’s a profound lesson, one passed down from the people who once lived above that Medford liquor store — a mom and a dad who taught their kids that generosity has an enduring and priceless dividend all its own.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @FarragherTom.