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Saving an American treasure

Date: 7/30/2012

Robert Balthaser
> Vice President of Development Trust for the National Mall Washington, D.C.
> Alvernia Class of 1991 — B.A., English
> Member of the Alvernia President’s Advisory Council 
> Raised more than $120 million for the scholarship campaign at the University of Maryland

When Robert Balthaser ’91 jogs on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., he sees much more than grassy esplanades and spectacular monuments. He sees a healthier, smarter vision of America’s most popular, pivotal park.Balthaser is vice president of development for the Trust for the National Mall, a non-profit partner of the National Park Service, the Mall’s monitor. He’s leading a $350 million drive to improve the distressed, antiquated commons all the way from the U.S. Capitol building to the Jefferson Memorial.

He says that for 30 years “America’s Front Yard” has been overrun by tens of millions of visitors and hundreds of thousands of dollars in budget cuts. Unfortunately, it has resulted in a troubling state of affairs for the storied site of presidential inaugurations and family reunions, civil-rights marches and marriage proposals. But that is all about to change thanks in part to his work for the Trust.

In February, he helped secure the Trust’s first major gift when David Rubenstein, the billionaire financier, philanthropist and history buff, announced he would donate $7.5 million toward repairing the Washington Monument, which was closed to the public after being cracked by last summer’s earthquake.

In addition, Balthaser has been working with the country’s largest landscaping company on a plan to install an underground irrigation system to prevent the Mall’s lawns from becoming dirt brownfields during the dog days of summer.

A native of the Reading suburb of Laureldale, Balthaser polished his people skills while working in his family’s fourth-generation meat business. Behind the beef counter he discovered that good salesmanship often depends on good listening and humble confidence, valuable tools for a future fundraiser.

“You have to remember it’s less about you and more about your mission,” he says. “One of the basic principles of fundraising is: Do not argue with donors. That’s just common sense.”

It was at Alvernia that Balthaser cut his teeth as a fundraiser. An English major who wrote a thesis about playwright Oscar Wilde, he received a $500 donation from Sister Dolorey, then the university’s president, to produce a program of one-act works with a community theater company. The successful campaign boosted his belief that “if you really believe in something, it’s not fundraising — it’s a mission with passion.”

Balthaser insists the National Mall job fits him like flesh. He gets to draft major gift strategies; match visions to visionary donors; make a magnetic, historic hub even more so. He convinced the Dr. Scholl Foundation, for example, to help underwrite a Mall Wi-Fi system. And so now one day millions of middle-schoolers may be able to tap apps about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech as they stroll by his memorial.“We are defining the voice and the future of a place that truly represents who we are, for better or worse,” says Balthaser. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

There are once-in-a-lifetime perks, too. This winter Balthaser couldn’t wait to telephone his mother to tell her that he had just been photographed with his arm around former First Lady Laura Bush, the Trust’s honorary chairwoman. The memorable moment fulfilled his creed “to mix with people from all walks of life and do good deeds too.”

>>Read more from the latest issue of Alvernia Magazine.

 
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  • History: Established as a private four-year liberal arts college in 1958, Alvernia celebrated its 50th year by being awarded university status in 2008.
  • Heritage: Founded by the Bernardine Sisters, a Catholic religious order, the university embraces the Franciscan core values of service, humility, collegiality, contemplation and peacemaking.
  • Motto: “To Learn, To Love, To Serve”
  • Campus: The main campus in Reading is 121 acres, with two satellite campuses in Philadelphia and Pottsville (Schuylkill County).
  • Location: Our residential campus is situated three miles from center-city Reading, in the scenic Blue Mountain area of Eastern Pennsylvania.
  • Enrollment: 3,000 students attend Alvernia including 1,500 traditional undergraduates, 600 continuing education students, and 780 graduate students. Over 77% of first-year students live on campus.
  • Faculty: Our professors are accomplished scholars, experts in their fields, and supportive mentors. The student-to-faculty ratio is 14:1. Most classes are 20 students or fewer.
  • Athletics: NCAA Division III, member of the Commonwealth Conference of the Middle Atlantic States Athletic Corporation and member of Eastern College Athletic Conference, 8 men’s and 10 women’s intercollegiate sports.