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Poet and Philanthropist Ruth Lilly, Notable Indianapolis Native

One of the most quietly influential people from Indianapolis was Ruth Lilly, who passed away less than six months ago, on December 30, 2009, at the age of 94. Her life was a study in philanthropy, love of the arts, and persistent generosity. Ruth Lilly is considered by some to be the greatest friend to poetry in the United States, but she touched the lives of many others in various fields of endeavor, principally among charitable organizations in Indianapolis and Central Indiana.

Heiress to the grand fortune amassed by the wealthy Indianapolis giant called Eli Lilly and Company, a global powerhouse pharmaceutical company and one of the longest-standing Indianapolis businesses, Ruth Lilly lived her entire life in the Circle City. She and her husband, Guernsey Van Riper, had no children, and she was the company’s only remaining heir. Ruth Lilly solved the question of what to do with the money by giving almost all of it away to worthy causes.

She donated, in all, approximately $800 million during her lifetime, to organizations that support the arts, health care, education, youth programs and the Methodist church, to pinpoint only a few recipients. Lilly herself was something of a poet, and her biggest single donations made headlines when she gave $100 million in stock that went to the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry Magazine, and another $100 million that went to a Washington group called Americans for the Arts.

The name of Ruth Lilly also has a side-story of interest to the public. She has been put forth for consideration as one of the possible identities for the mysterious “Poe Toaster,” a person or a copycat, thus far unidentified for certain, who places three red roses at the grave of Edgar Allan Poe every year and toasts his birthday with cognac, leaving the bottle. Since Ruth Lilly’s death, the tradition has stopped, but it’s unlikely that the poetic mystery will ever by solved beyond suspicion.

Like Poe’s life, Lilly’s personal life was shadowed with sorrow and depression. She was hospitalized on more than one occasion for severe depression, but found surcease in her 70s through Prozac. Interestingly, the famous antidepressant was developed by Eli Lilly and Company and is still one of its most successful drugs.

Ruth Lilly’s great grandfather was Colonel Eli Lilly, founder of the pharmaceutical giant and grandfather to another Eli Lilly, who took the company into the stratosphere as a sophisticated business. The Colonel is immortalized today in the heart of Indianapolis at the Colonel Eli Lilly Civil War Museum in Indy‘s well-known tourist destination known as Monument Circle. Ruth’s father, Josiah K. Lilly Jr., was the last member of the Lilly family to run the company business.

The Lilly family has been recognized across the generations for a tradition of generosity and stunning philanthropy. The scope of their abundant donations has shaped the very fiber of Indianapolis culture and society. Ruth Lilly’s acts of giving continue the noble family tradition, and will reverberate into the future for many generations to come.

Institutions created through Ruth Lilly‘s donations include the Ruth Lilly Center for Health Education in Indianapolis, Ruth Lilly Hospice, Ruth Lilly Medical Library, Ruth Lilly Learning Center at the Riley Hospital for Children, Ruth Lilly YMCA Center, Ruth Lilly Special Collections and Ruth Lilly Law Library.


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