Work with a purpose

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Ask Stanley Gault what he’s been doing since he resigned from his job as chairman of the board and CEO of The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in 1996, and the energetic 75-year-old just may invite you to hop into his Cadillac Escalade sport utility vehicle so he can show you.

One of his first stops is the home he shares with wife, Flo. The red brick home is lovely but surprisingly modest compared to the houses that have sprung up in The Meadows subdivision a few miles away. Although a man of Gault’s means could spend his golden years anywhere in the world, he chooses to make his primary residence in the Wayne County college town of Wooster, where he grew up.

“We do have a very attractive property in Canada, and we have a nice place in Florida,” he says. “But I do not want to live full time in Florida. I’m great there for about 10 days at a time, and then I come back here for four or five days.”

As he continue to drive, it becomes clear that Gault’s retirement project isn’t the house but the city of Wooster itself. While many of his peers spend their days golfing, fishing and sleeping in the sun, the man lauded by Business Week and Fortune is making a second career out of civic-mindedness.

The city is full of causes he’s championed — a shelter for battered women, a drug treatment center, even the department store downtown. Gault hopes the projects “serve as an incentive, motivation and encouragement to other communities to show what can be accomplished when the private sector, the public sector, individuals, organizations, all get together for a common cause.”

One of the first examples Gault points out is the future site of the Wayne County Public Library, a city block on the south side of West Liberty Street that Gault and his wife had paved and landscaped so it could be used for parking until ground is broken for the building. In 1998, Gault led the drive to secure a new downtown site for the library, currently located on Market Street, and, along with a handful of others, subsidized $1.3 million of its purchase price.

“Some of the board members wanted to put this thing out in the country,” he remembers. “I don’t know how they thought people would get to it.”

Gault uses the word “we” when he talks about obtaining funding for the building’s construction — an indication that he’ll probably be involved in that, too. But he’s a much bigger fan of restorations such as that of the Gault Liberty Center, located at the east end of Wooster’s downtown area. The turn-of-the century buggy works now houses the offices and programs of Substance Abuse Treatment Education and Prevention Services and Every Woman’s House, which operates a battered women’s shelter next door.

According to STEPS/Every Woman’s House Executive Director Bobbi Douglas, the nonprofit organizations, which serve Wayne and Holmes counties, approached Gault in 1996 about co-chairing the capital campaign that raised $4 million to rehabilitate the factory and construct the shelter.

“Usually people of his position might be honorary chairs, but he was a working (chairman),” she recalls. “He ran the meetings, he oversaw the results, he reviewed all the spreadsheets, he made a lot of the requests for funding himself. He and Mrs. Gault also donated a substantial sum.”

Gault was even a member of the building committee, which met as often as once a week.

He’s very warm and down-to-earth,” Douglas adds. “His experience in the world has lent a lot of wisdom to the projects that he’s been associated with, particularly in Wooster.”

Douglas says Gault still supports STEPS and Every Woman’s House, both financially and otherwise. (He recently hosted a luncheon for Timken Foundation representatives who came to town to see the center and shelter.) But much of his time and energy is devoted to the renovation of the Beall Avenue School, a 100-year-old structure Gault attended as a child that is being converted into the Family Learning & Development Center.

The facility will accommodate preschool classes run by the Ida Sue School and Tri-County Cooperative Preschool, nonprofit organizations that offer programs for disabled children; some of the College of Wooster’s early childhood education classes; offices for the college’s Wooster Volunteer Network; and Wayne County Career Center programs.

According to the center’s executive director, Melody Snure, Gault came up with the idea for the center, purchased the building at public auction in July 2000, and is paying for 80 percent of its multimillion-dollar renovations.

But his involvement hasn’t stopped with writing the checks. Gault says he meets with project management teams and architects every two to three weeks.

He has been very hands-on in everything from selecting the color of paint for window trim to all of the key discussions we’ve had,” Snure says. “He asks the right questions. He’s very much a good motivator. And he can work with anybody. He’s equally as comfortable with your average third-shift guy in a flannel shirt as he is with another CEO.”

Gault’s sole for-profit venture in the city is Freedlander’s, the downtown department store he bought from fellow stockholders in 2000 after a couple of board members said they could no longer devote their time to the enterprise. The purchase, he says, has streamlined decision-making at the store and will protect a hefty chunk of the downtown area.

“There are very few cities our size in the nation that have a department store that’s comparable to this,” he declares with pride as he cruises by the store.

The establishment sells items such as Estee Lauder cosmetics, Florsheim shoes and Hart Schaffner & Marx suits and offers free alterations, gift wrapping and delivery. He calls Freedlander’s “an emotional investment” because “I don’t intend to ever make any money on it.”

The problem lies in a lack of convenient parking, he says.

“People will park in the outer fringes of a Wal-Mart parking lot because they can’t get any closer than that,” he says. “Yet those same people won’t walk that distance, or even half that distance, to get to a store downtown.”

Gault’s foray into local philanthropy began during his days as chairman of the board and CEO of Rubbermaid Inc., a position that brought the General Electric senior vice president back to his native Wooster in 1980 after 31 years with that company. In 1984, he was the driving force behind the Rubbermaid Foundation’s purchase and renovation of the Walnut Street School, a “cookie-cutter” of the Beall Avenue School that now serves as the Wayne Center for the Arts.

According to Gault, the facility offers classes in “everything from aerobic dancing to basket-weaving” to 2,200 members from ages 5 to 85. The foundation funded the construction of a building for United Way of Wooster — “the first time in America that any organization had ever built a headquarters for United Way from scratch,” Gault says — and in 1991 donated the land on which the new Wooster High School sits.

“We needed a new high school,” Gault says. “I made a deal with the city that we would buy the land, which was worth $2 million, if they would organize a campaign (to pass a bond issue), get good people behind it and aggressively go after it. As a result, it won.”

He also chaired the fund-raising effort for and was a major contributor to the adjoining recreation and fitness center, a facility used by both students and the community at large.

Gault’s combined activities require the services of a full-time administrative assistant and a spacious office on the north end of town where he puts in 40-hour work weeks. He still serves on the boards of Avon Products, Wal-Mart, Timken and his alma mater, the College of Wooster. (He and his family made a parting gift of the money needed to build a new admissions center when he resigned as chairman of the university’s board of trustees last year.)

He is also active in a Louisville, Ky., real estate and commercial development concern run by his son and son-in-law. And although Gault enjoys puttering around his house near Kingston, Ontario, Canada, and spending time with his three children and six grandchildren, he doesn’t think he’ll ever retire.

“There are too many worthwhile opportunities to not take advantage of them,” he says.

He encourages others to get involved with their communities to the extent their personal circumstances permit.

“There’s no such thing as a self-made man or a self-made woman, as some people would like to designate themselves,” he says. “We need to do everything we can to provide the facilities and the opportunity for everyone to improve themselves.”