Wilfred and Joan Larson were high school sweethearts who traveled together on life’s journey for 68 years. She preceded him in death in 2017 and after his passing in 2019, they left behind a staggering $38.9 million legacy for three communities they held close to their hearts.
Through their WJL Charitable Remainder Unitrust, the Naples residents of 20 years left the Community Foundation of Collier County $13.6 million in unrestricted funds established as the Wilfred and Joan Larson Fund – the largest gift received in CFCC history. The New York natives also bequeathed $9.9 million to the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo, where they lived in the 1990s, and another $15.4 million to the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation in Michigan.
“Here’s a couple who had homes in three communities over their lifespan and they wanted to make sure each community would get part of their philanthropic dollars,” said Community Foundation Collier County President/CEO Eileen Connolly-Keesler. “We talk about “give where you live” and this is a splendid example for other donors for giving here in Collier County and where they came from.”
Will Larson was a 28-year executive with Bristol-Myers Squibb Company, serving as president of Bristol-Myers Products and retiring as president and CEO of Westwood-Squibb Pharmaceuticals in 1991. He served in the U.S Naval Reserve from 1945 to 1947, and in the U.S. Army from 1951 to 1953 before earning a bachelor’s degree in economics. A native of Brooklyn, he met Joan in high school, and they married in 1949. A former champion welterweight, Will enjoyed fishing, tennis, golf, painting, and cycling well into his 80’s.
The couple retired to Naples and summered in Leland, Michigan. In Naples, they had established a donor advised fund at the Community Foundation to support human services, education, the environment, and historic preservation. He was also actively involved with The Immokalee Foundation, serving as chairman of the board, and spearheading the Take Stock in Children scholarship program. That’s where he met board member Alison K. Douglas, Esq., a principal at Cummings & Lockwood, who became his estate-planning lawyer.
“It struck me when I was working on his memorial and estate that they are funding in perpetuity organizations and missions in the communities in which they lived,” said Douglas. There were memorial services for Will in Naples and Leland, which Douglas attended. “I was so moved to see the imprint they had in that community,” she said.
The Larsons supported organizations ranging from the symphony to health care. “They had true focuses but were open to other needs in their communities. They were very visionary and passionate but knew the needs of the community would change over time,” Douglas said.
This is where the Community Foundation plays a crucial role, Connolly-Keesler explained. The Larson’s fund granted out $185,000 shortly after its establishment. “That’s a significant role for the Community Foundation,” she said. “We know what he cared about.”