By Cliff Radel
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Forevermore, W. Todd Bassettwill be known as the Salvation Army's billion-dollar man.
Nice nickname for a guy with a diploma from Hughes High School.
During his watch as the Salvation Army's national commander, Bassett accepted history's largest individual donation.
The gift, announced Jan. 20, came from the estate of hamburger tycoon Joan Kroc. The amount - still being counted - exceeds $1.5 billion, or 612 million Big Macs.
Speaking from his office in Alexandria, Va., Bassett called the gift "a sacred trust."
Bassett is charged with making sure the money does what Kroc intended - build 25 to 30 community centers across the country and enrich countless lives.
"This is a humbling honor," said the member of Hughes' class of 1957.
Former classmate Sue Brant Wagner, who lives in Finneytown, said she's proud of Bassett's rise in the Salvation Army.
"We have a lot of neat people in our class - doctors, lawyers," she said. "But I don't know if any of them has such a claim to fame. Todd may be our highest achiever."
Bassett modestly declined the title.
To deflect the compliment, he started singing the opening lines to "There is Nothin' Like a Dame" from South Pacific. He appeared as a sailor in the school's 1957 production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
Bassett recalled receiving a friendly reception from classmates.
"And that's why there has always been a warm spot in my heart for Cincinnati."
Bassett came to the Clifton high school in his senior year. His mother and father, both Salvation Army officers, had been transferred from Sydney, Ohio.
"Todd was a kind, quiet, good-looking guy with dark hair," Wagner said. Even though he was the new kid, Bassett never felt like one.
"The way I was embraced and made to feel a part of the life of the school," he said, "never, ever has ceased to amaze me."
However, Wagner has never seen Bassett at class reunions.
"I guess he has been too busy moving around and up through the ranks," she said.
For most of the reunions, the words "no information" appeared next to his name on the class list.
"But at our last reunion, our 45th in 2002, 'London, England,' showed up," Wagner said.
Bassett and his wife, Carol, the Salvation Army's National President of Women's Ministries, were stationed in London in 2002. They worked at the organization's international headquarters.
On Nov. 1, 2002, Bassett returned to the United States to serve as the Salvation Army's national commander. He was set to retire in the fall. But he's done a good job. And, now there's the task of divvying up $1.5 billion. So, his term has been extended to April of 2006.
Bassett wants to proceed very carefully with the Kroc legacy. Guidelines must be established. Communities must be evaluated. Their needs and their ability to raise funds will be examined.
"There are enormous implications with this gift," he said.
The Salvation Army has been running community centers for 136 years. But it is not used to dealing with this much money, nor with a gift with strings attached.
Half the gift must be used to build the centers, the other half goes into a trust for operating the facilities.
"But that other 50 percent ($750 million)," Bassett said. "Will only cover half of our operating costs."
An organization known for raising money from donations dropped into red kettles is not going to go into the red. Not on his watch.
Supporting the new centers makes donations in those kettles "more important than ever."
The national commander has first-hand experience raising money a nickel and a dime at a time.
During the 1957 holiday season, Bassett came home from college to man a red kettle on the corner of Fourth and Vine. He rang the bell, played carols on his alto horn and turned to ice.
"When that wind would come blowing up from the river," he recalled with an audible shiver, "I nearly froze to death."
Despite the wind, he was warmed by the kindness of strangers. And their donations.
"Cincinnati at that time was the most warm and wonderful big-little city," he said.
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