Updated: March 7, 2012 at 12:00 am
If Gayle Beshears were to write an autobiography, he could, with a nod to Eugene O’Neill, title it “The Iceman Giveth.”
Beshears, nicknamed “the Iceman” because of the business that built his fortune, gives his time to numerous nonprofit boards. He’s given generous donations that made it possible for Memorial Health System to bring the first digital mammography machines to Colorado Springs, and he gives his palatial house over to nonprofits to use for fundraising events.
“He’s the most generous man I know, period,” says Bob Penkhus, who nominated Beshears for the Hometown Heroes Humanitarian Award that will be given out Thursday night at a ceremony sponsored by the Pikes Peak Chapter of the American Red Cross.
“He opens up his home to so many charities in Colorado Springs. In fact, I don’t even think I can begin to list all the charities that have benefited from his generosity.”
But Beshears, a soft-spoken 83-year-old with a genial Texas twang, is not about to write an autobiography — at least not one that trumpets his many philanthropic gestures and the numerous awards he’s received because of them.
“I’ve never made that much out of it,” he says. “I don’t feel I’ve done that much, but the charities feel different, I guess.”
He wasn’t always front and center with charitable causes, he says.
Born in Oklahoma and raised in Sulphur Springs, Texas, he joined the Navy in 1948, then went to work for the Southland Corp. in its dairy division. In 1965, he was transferred to Colorado Springs to run a dairy that used to be at the “triangle” where Platte and Boulder meet downtown, then left Southland to run a dairy in Denver from 1972 to 1979. He ended up back in Texas, and in 1985, he got a call from Southland’s vice president of manufacturing: How would he like to run Southland’s ice division?
“Well, I wouldn’t,” Beshears recalls saying.
But he thought it over and ran it for two years. When Southland sold off its dairy and ice divisions in 1987 to focus on its 7-Eleven stores, he and two partners in Dallas bought its seven ice plants and added 36 more by the time he retired in 1998.
“Ice was good to me,” says Beshears. “It was financially rewarding; I felt like I needed to give back.”
He and his wife, Mary Lou, decided to retire in Colorado Springs and build their dream house. But she got sick, and he cared for her until she died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in 2006, after 51 years of marriage.
“All of a sudden, I’ve got 24 hours a day with nothing to do,” he says.
Then he ran into Vicki Dimond, a neighbor in the townhome complex where he and Mary Lou lived while they were building their house, and they went to lunch. She asked what he was doing with his time; he told her “nothing.”
“She says, ‘I have ideas.’”
Dimond got him involved with Memorial and launched him into the world of philanthropy. The Memorial Foundation board had been talking about getting digital mammography machines; at a fundraiser, he agreed to match every dollar the foundation raised, and wrote a check for $120,000 that went toward the purchase of six machines — now in the Mary Lou Beshears Breast Cancer Center.
“Over time, since we started using those, he’s impacted thousands and thousands of women,” says Juanita Hamel, breast program manager for the center. “We do between 18,000 and 20,000 mammograms a year. That’s fairly significant.”
Hamel says Beshears also hosts a jewelry party at his house, where guests can purchase baubles to benefit the center.
“He’s just very, very supportive of what we’re trying to do: early detection of breast cancer and state-of-the-art equipment,” she says.
Beshears can’t remember how he came to open his house to complete strangers to help raise money for nonprofits, but he hosts 20 to 30 functions a year. Some are intimate dinners purchased by a lucky bidder at a nonprofit fundraising auction. Some are bigger affairs. The soirees have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for nonprofits, and he’s always there, greeting guests and enjoying the role of host.
“You can’t believe how many people I’ve met at these functions,” he says. “Now, it’s like old friends coming back.”
He also hosts an annual Christmas party, with a big “Noel, ya’ll” hanging over his house to greet the hundreds of guests he invites.
At first, it was just a social gathering, and guests would bring wine and food. But he decided that, instead of bringing wine, his guests should bring at least two children’s coats to give to the needy. Last year, he upped the number to four coats.
Beshears acknowledges that he sometimes overextends himself, and talks about slowing down so he can travel to New Zealand and Africa. Penkhus hopes he follows through.
“Frankly, I think he’s spread himself very thin,” Penkhus says. “I tried to get him to go on a couple of trips, but he’s literally just booked solid with all these events he has at his home. He’s the Iceman with the warmest soul you’ll ever meet in your life.”