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Mrs. Russell Sage’s philanthropic efforts helped make Sag Harbor what it is today. (Photo courtesy of Bethany Deyermond)

Earlier this month, Dr. Ruth Gottesman donated $1 billion to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine — ensuring free tuition for all students going forward. While this extremely magnanimous gesture is impressive, it reminds of historical philanthropist Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, known colloquially as Mrs. Russell Sage, whose contributions to education and progressive causes at the turn of the last century helped shaped parts of the East End, and beyond, forever.

Born in Syracuse in 1828, Sage was married at 41 to Russell, a wealthy industrialist, railroad executive and financier. She lived to be 90 and she never had children. When the pair moved to New York City after being wed, Sage began regularly summering in Sag Harbor, where members of her extended family had settled. She, like so many others, quickly fell in love with the former whaling village. After her husband’s death in 1906, Mrs. Sage inherited his fortune, which was estimated to be around $65 million, all to be used at her discretion.

Sage purchased her summer home, what would be the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum, in 1907. (Photo credit: Emily Toy)

“They called her Lady Bountiful,” says Sag Harbor resident Bethany Deyermond, a former member of the village’s historical society. “I think she just really wanted to help people.”

And that she did.

“Of her countless benefactions, it is doubtful that her presence could be felt more anywhere that it is in Sag Harbor,” says Susan Swobodzinksi, a former teacher at Pierson High School, which Sage provided the original funding for. “When she inquired as to what Sag Harbor needed most, she was told a new schoolhouse.” So, she had one built, for just over $100,000. It was completed in 1908.

Next came the John Jermain Memorial Library, built in 1910 and established in honor of her grandfather, Major John Jermain, as a gift to the people of the village. According to Swobodzinski, the property where it was built cost $10,000 and the Greek Temple-like structure was erected at a cost of $100,000, believed to be the most expensive building in Sag Harbor at that time.

During an outdoor picnic for the students of Pierson held by Sage in 1908 at what is now Mashashimuet Park, she noticed the poor conditions of the park’s 85 acres. She immediately sought to make improvements to the park land, to ultimately benefit the youth and families of Sag Harbor. After purchasing the park land and the adjacent surrounding land at Otter Pond, she funded the improvements of the grounds, containing two ball fields, a half-mile running track and four tennis courts. She erected a grandstand — still there today — that holds nearly 400 people. She built dressing rooms with running water and laid 14,000 feet of concrete walkways throughout the area.

Before her death in 1918, while she was expanding the grounds of her palatial estate (which included what would eventually become the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum), Sage purchased, repaired, modernized, decorated, relocated and furnished multiple homes that she ended up giving to needy residents. At least 13 families became the recipients of houses.

The village’s library, named for Sage’s grandfather, John Jermain was completed in 1910. (Photo credit: Emily Toy)

Seemingly a woman ahead of her time, Sage is characterized by contemporary historian Henry Whittemore as “a woman of fine intellectual gifts” and “devoted to the deeds of charity and love.” Her contributions ran the gamut, yet typically always swayed toward providing for education and socially progressionist endeavors. During her lifetime, she donated millions to countless churches, endowing programs for women, hospitals, missions and charitable organizations as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History and Syracuse University. Two years before her death, she founded Russell Sage College in upstate New York, in the city of Troy. Her greatest single gift was the $10 million she used to establish and endow the Russell Sage Foundation in 1907, a non-profit organization responsible for the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States.  

“Olivia’s philanthropy was neither a kind of private form of progressive taxation aimed at the redistribution of wealth nor generalized helping,” writes historian Ruth Crocker in Mrs. Russell Sage: Women’s Activism and Philanthropy in Gilded Age and Progressive Era America. “It was a very specific targeting of certain institutions that the donor deemed worthy.”

So, thanks Mrs. Sage. Glad you thought our little corner of the world here on the South Fork was worth it.