September 10, 2009 — Frank Batten Sr., retired chairman of Landmark Communications and one of the University of Virginia's most generous benefactors, died today in Norfolk. He was 82.
A 1950 graduate of U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences, he held an abiding belief that access to education is the key to an individual's future as well as to the health and well-being of one's community. He gave away more than $400 million to all levels of education, including $100 million in 2007 to establish the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. It was the largest gift in the history of the University.
His wide-ranging philanthropy will have long-lasting results: He created the ACCESS College Foundation, with friend and former U.Va. Rector Joshua P. Darden, to help students in Hampton Roads attend college; he was instrumental in the establishment of Old Dominion University and served as its first rector; and at U.Va., in addition to his gift to the Batten School, he gave $60 million in 1999 to the Darden School of Business, where he served as a trustee of its foundation, to create the Batten Institute to foster entrepreneurship.
U.Va. President John T. Casteen III pointed to Batten's lasting influence on him personally.
"Frank Batten was a great man, and also a man with a monumental imagination, profound practical sense, and a broad and deep capacity for friendship that made those of us who knew him stronger and probably better than we might have been on our own," he said.
C. Ray Smith, professor emeritus and interim dean of the Darden School in 2001-02, called Batten "a real gentleman in the best sense of the word and a person with the highest degree of integrity.
"The University has lost one of our best friends, but his memory will live on because of what he has created here," Smith said.
John O. Wynne, rector of the University, was president and CEO of Norfolk-based Landmark Communications during Batten's chairmanship. "Frank Batten was the most incredible person I have ever had the privilege to know," he said Thursday.
"His care for the well-being of others went well beyond his family and his employees. Frank was a citizen of the world who saw problems and sought to solve them," he said.
An extraordinary leader, Batten listened more than he talked, said Wynne. "That's what he did when it came to supporting the University. He listened to what we needed and then found a way to make it happen," he said.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine issued a statement Thursday honoring Batten's integrity and leadership.
"His commitment to his community, his state and his country were rooted in his unfailing belief in the value of education," said Kaine, who nominated Batten for the Distinguished Service to State Government Award, which he received from the National Governors Association in 2007.
David Breneman, former dean of the Curry School of Education, oversaw the planning and implementation of U.Va.'s Batten School of Leadership & Public Policy. He said he was struck by Batten's concern for civic responsibility and his desire to see the school established.
"He hoped to inspire young people to become engaged and committed public citizens in their communities, their state and their country," Breneman said. "Batten saw it was important to focus on leadership to develop public leaders in whatever occupations they would choose."
Harry Harding, the Batten School's first dean, said he had met the school's namesake for the first time only a few weeks ago. "He impressed me with his deep and abiding interest in the Batten School," Harding said.
"The entire Batten School community – faculty, students, staff and alumni – mourns the loss of Frank Batten," he said. "Mr. Batten was more than an extremely generous benefactor. He was also our inspiration: committed to the principle that our graduates should not only contribute solutions to the most challenging issues facing our society in a globalized world, but also become enlightened, ethical and effective participants in public life."
Batten also believed strongly that entrepreneurship and innovation were important for economic growth and, more broadly, for the advancement of society, said Michael Lenox, executive director of the Batten Institute at Darden.
"Mr. Batten was an inspiring figure who was not only our benefactor but also a guiding light in our endeavors," he said.
"In my interactions with him this past year, I was always impressed by his quick wit, his unfailing modesty and his dedication to doing things the right way," Lenox said. "We at the Batten Institute are proud to bear his name and are inspired every day by Mr. Batten's dedication to the transformative power of entrepreneurship and innovation."
Starting as an errand boy at his uncle's newspaper, Batten, a Norfolk native, became publisher of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk when he was only 27. Through acquisitions of other media outlets, he created Landmark Communications and expanded it into one of the country's largest privately held media corporations. The array of companies included The Weather Channel, which Batten and Landmark executives founded in 1982.
Batten, who earned his MBA at Harvard University, was known for his business acumen, as well as his keen interest in the areas of leadership, entrepreneurship and citizenship.
Batten's beliefs and support of education emerged early in his career. In 1954, when the Supreme Court ordered public schools to integrate, The Virginian-Pilot was the only metropolitan daily paper in the state to endorse court-ordered desegregation. And in 1960, he fully supported the work of his editorial page editor, who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the courage to stand up to Virginia's "massive resistance" to integration.
Batten also showed courage in the face of personal adversity when he lost his vocal cords to cancer at the age of 52 and had to learn to speak again.
He is survived by his wife, Jane, and three children, two of whom are alumni of the Darden School.