Funds & Foundations

Meet Alphonso Pettis, first donor to The Indianapolis Foundation

Alphonso Perceval Pettis was a businessman, world traveler, philanthropist, and the first benefactor of The Indianapolis Foundation.

He amassed a fortune as a young man, lost much of it in a financial collapse, lived to accumulate a second fortune, and then gave it all away. And when he distributed it in the waning years of his life "to be able to live out the remainder of my days in tranquility," he was achieving through benevolence the peace and quiet that others work so hard to buy.

After losing his first fortune with the failed Claflin Company, one of the nation’s largest wholesale firms in New York, Mr. Pettis founded the Syndicate Trading Company, supplying retail firms with products from throughout the world. In typical Pettis fashion, Syndicate Trading became one of the "world’s largest" and he was well on his way to success. One of his customers was The New York Store, a leading dry goods business on East Washington Street in Indianapolis. On one of his rare visits to this city he bought the store, changing the name to "The Pettis Dry Goods Company, The New York Store."

Possessing his second fortune, Mr. Pettis retired to Nice, France in 1890 at age 60. Nine years before his death, A.P. Pettis began distributing his fortune to many beneficiaries in six states, and then making special gifts and bequests to charitable organizations, institutions, and hospitals in Indianapolis, New York City, and elsewhere. He gave the remainder of his estate to The Indianapolis Foundation by trust deed executed May 5, 1920, with a total value estimated at more than $300,000. This is equivalent to a $3 million gift today!

In making the distribution of his fortune prior to his death, A.P. Pettis had particularly recognized the place of The Indianapolis Foundation in the life of the community, thereby strengthening the hands of the Foundation’s trustees for future work. The gift became the inspiration to other prominent businessmen and women of the city to make similar contributions to The Indianapolis Foundation.

The Foundation’s first expenditure from the Pettis gift went to the Public Health Nursing Association of Indianapolis, forerunner of the Visiting Nurse Association of Indianapolis, Inc., followed closely by the establishment of a scholarship fund for students in need.

But today, and for many tomorrows, thousands of Indianapolis men, women, and children will enjoy a better life because of his foresight and generosity.

"When I made this gift to the citizens of Indianapolis, I had only in mind something for those who had done so much for me," Mr. Pettis later wrote.

This abbreviated article originally appeared in The Indianapolis Foundation’s 1974 Yearbook.