NEW YORK – Beatrice “Buddy” Cummings Mayer, the matriarch of the Nathan Cummings family and a founding Trustee of the Nathan Cummings Foundation (NCF) passed away at age 97 on Saturday, September 15th in Chicago. The staff and Board of NCF grieve her loss and hold her memory tightly, with gratitude for the many gifts her life bestowed on the world. She was known for her bright red lipstick and being a force of nature. She will be fiercely missed.
In Buddy’s words, “With privilege comes responsibility.” Her commitment to justice and exceptional spirit for social activism and philanthropy are deeply reflected in the work of the Foundation, now in its 28th year. Her leadership as a founding Trustee, NCF’s first Board Chair, and our Trustee Emeritus left a lasting imprint on the identity of the Foundation and the values we hold dear. She has served as a guiding light for us all. Her life, with all its incredible accomplishments, still illuminates our path.
Charles “Charlie” Halpern, NCF’s first staff President, worked closely with Buddy.
“Her commitment to social justice and ‘responsible risk taking,’ and her empathy for the people and groups supported by the Foundation, for family members, and for the diverse and talented staff we assembled, gave the Foundation its distinctive quality. And she brought the warmth and caring that she shared with her family to all of the people who served and shaped the Foundation’s work.”
Buddy was a woman ahead of her time. Her father, Nathan Cummings, saw his eponymous Foundation as a way to keep the family close. Buddy took that idea a step further and led her family to build an institution that would be strategic, engaging, and impactful—not simply writing checks to its founder’s favorite charities. With that clarity of focus and her experience as the first woman on the Sara Lee Corporation’s Board (the source of Nathan Cummings wealth), Buddy embraced her strong belief in people and professionalism. She saw to it that NCF hired knowledgeable and skilled staff who would push the boundaries of what it meant to be a change-making family foundation.
Ruth Cummings, Buddy’s niece and current Board Chair, added,
“Buddy sought to build the Foundation for the future to be shared by successive generations. She valued professionalism and early on stood up for the idea of inviting Independent Trustees, who were experts in fields not represented by the family and brought a diversity of experiences and viewpoints to the Board. The Foundation continues to be shaped by these early decisions that she championed.”
Buddy was a creative risk taker who didn’t hesitate to tackle the tough questions of her day. She spent time directly with those who had the least and listened to their needs, what is now referred to in philanthropy as “getting proximate.” Again, she was ahead of her time. In the 1960s she joined Wednesdays in Mississippi, building relationships with women in the South to create bridges of understanding across regional, racial, and class lines.
Sharon Alpert, NCF’s President & CEO, offered,
"Buddy believed in the power of people to make a difference, and she did not suffer those who didn't push the edge. She believed in women's leadership, and she was a fiercely dedicated advocate for justice in her own right. She believed we could and should do philanthropy differently, be bold and take risks, not settle for the status quo, and hold ourselves accountable to the highest standards.”
A passionate leader in the arts community, Buddy paved paths and was one of the earliest supporters of pop and individual artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Diego Rivera. Without her resolve, NCF’s work would not be as bold as it is today.
Joan Shigekawa, a former NCF Arts Program Director said,
“In the Foundation's earliest days, [Buddy] supported a vigorous defense of freedom of expression in the arts and cheered us on as we fought for the First Amendment rights of artists when they came under attack from hostile political forces. Her fearless love for the visual and performing arts helped to establish NCF as a national leader in the field of arts grantmaking.”
Family pride was core to Buddy’s life. The involvement of the third generation in shaping the Foundation and leading it is a testament to Buddy’s lasting influence. She actively mentored younger family members as they took on leadership of the Foundation, maintaining the Foundation’s course and propelling it forward. She took particular excitement and pride in knowing that future generations would be involved in the Foundation. As her great-nephews, great-nieces, and grandchildren—the fourth generation—began to come of age, she oversaw their education in the family business of philanthropy.
Her granddaughter and current Vice Chair, Jaimie Mayer, shared,
“She cared deeply about the future of NCF and the family. We could not rest until the work was done, and it became abundantly clear that the work would never be done. She pushed us all to learn, to show up, to make her proud. She yearned for the day a member of my generation would lead the Foundation. In many ways the fourth generation’s involvement was Gram’s proudest achievement. She slept well at night knowing the future was in good hands and trusted us to fly.”
Buddy’s Jewish values provided the moral focus on social justice that continues to this day. She took responsibility for infusing her father’s legacy into the Foundation’s identity and method: rooted in Jewish traditions, aspiring to be creative and proactive, and willing to take risks and fail at times. Buddy instilled those values into the Foundation, its way of doing business, and how it conducted inquiry that would catalyze progress.
James K. Cummings, Buddy’s nephew, current Treasurer, and former Board Chair, extolled Buddy’s dedication, her humility, and her resolution to do things differently.
“Buddy brought corporate management sensibility and rigor to her service on the Foundation’s Board. It made us better, particularly with her sharp focus on our mission and strategy and what would make our work effective. She constantly asked questions to ensure we made positive impact, yet her humility ensured that no grantee ever knew of her extensive diligence and what she expected of her fellow colleagues at NCF.”
Ernest Tollerson, former Chair of the Board, noted how Buddy had “a knack, a gift if you will, for making all of us see the pursuit of social justice as an involuntary act, something as necessary and normal as breathing."
She was unafraid to use her voice to call out injustice. Annette Ensley, the Foundation’s first Director of HR and Administration, reminded us,
“Buddy spoke up and spoke out against the forces that seek to restrict, and in some cases actually destroy, our freedoms, our joys, our loves, our opportunities, and our very lives. Buddy always provided the renewable, sustainable fuel needed to create the world we want to live in.”
In all she did, Buddy always had the future in mind. In her own words:
“It’s my hope and prayer that the younger generation will come along in developing more skills, more communal experience. . . I hope that the plan for the fourth generation of the Cummings family will be fruitful and productive. I hope always that Dad’s philosophy, Dad’s approach to projects—the aggressive, creative approach, willing to take reasonable risks—will always characterize the Foundation.”
For those who loved her as a mother, grandmother, aunt, colleague, friend, and peer, Beatrice “Buddy” Cummings Mayer’s legacy continues to live on in the work of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. May her bright light shine on the world we wish to change, particularly for those who pursue justice.