Top service awards go to ‘visioneer’ Gus Whalen and bibliophile philanthropist Fred Bentley

Nov 22, 2011
Rudi Kiefer

Contributions combine preservation and vision

Brenau University conferred its top non-academic awards Thursday night on Gainesville business and civic leader Charles E. “Gus” Whalen and rare books donor Fred D. Bentley Sr. of Marietta, Ga.

Bentley, who among many contributions to Brenau spearheaded the development of the enviable Rare Books Room and collection of significant works of literature and art, received the Distinguished Service to Brenau award.

Fred Bentley head shotTA3_7397
Fred Bentley’s generosity led to creation of an enviable collection of books, papers, furniture and other historically important items in the Brenau Trustee Library rare books room.

Whalen, who has played leadership roles in many civic and philanthropic initiatives, including development of Featherbone Communiversity, the collaborative, cross-generational learning alliance that has become the showcase home of three of Brenau’s top academic programs, received the Algernon Sidney Sullivan Award for distinguished community service.

“Both of these men in different ways share the vision that Brenau is a very special institution, and their support for Brenau has helped create components that set Brenau apart from other colleges and universities” said Brenau president Ed Schrader. Schrader presented the awards Thursday night at a Chattahoochee Country Club dinner honoring financial supporters who contributed at least $1,000 to the university’s annual fund or other programs.

The Sullivan award was named for the 19th century New York lawyer and philanthropist who made community service projects, particularly those related to expanding educational opportunities to all people, as much a part of his regimen as his successful business ventures.

Whalen, who chairs The Warren Featherbone Company and directs the efforts of The Warren Featherbone Foundation, is the author of four books and a frequent speaker before civic and business groups around the country about blending corporate citizenship with community growth and sustainability. Schrader conceded that there were some naysayers in the area who scoffed at Whalen’s idea to turn the old Featherbone manufacturing facility into a hip, modern multiuse facility, but now the Featherbone Communiversity is home to the INK Museum for Children, some Lanier Tech operations and Brenau dance studios and its schools of nursing and occupational therapy.

at President's club dinner 2011
Visioneer Whalen transformed what others might have seen as urban decay in the making into a unique concept for community-based cradle-to-grave education.

“A top state government official in another state where Gus was speaking not long ago said in a newspaper interview that Gus ‘has proven to be one of our nation’s true visionaries,’” said Schrader. “We at Brenau share that view. Most people who looked at the site of the Featherbone manufacturing plant in Gainesville five years ago probably envisioned the kind of industrial decay that blights many southern cities. But Gus envisioned what is there now: a vibrant, modern facility that has activity going all through the day.”

Bentley, a retired Marietta attorney, former legislator and civic and political leader in Cobb County, and his late wife, Sara, were for more than four decades serious collectors of rare books, art works and other historically significant items. One book that remains in his personal collection, for example, is a rare 16th century volume that was the seminal anatomy textbook for doctors. Bentley discovered the innards of the book in another part of the world and through one of his agents; his wife found the cover some months later quite by accident at an antique sale in Atlanta.

The Bentleys have donated books and other pieces of their collection to colleges, universities, galleries and libraries around the Southeast. At Brenau, however, they directed the establishment of the Rare Books Room in the university’s Trustee Library and over the years have donated to it about 2,000 books, manuscripts and documents, including a document signed by both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The collection also includes  an original printing of a Shakespeare work, the Oliver Twist publication, and first editions of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Steinbeck’s East of Eden and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. 

Because Bentley was fond of Brenau’s Victorian-era theater, Pearce Auditorium, he made certain some of the collection was theater-focused. As a result, Brenau now not only holds the largest collection of playwright Eugene O’Neill first editions, but also a small love seat that Bentley acquired from O’Neill’s home. Bentley saw the piece when he visited the O’Neill home, thought it would be a nice addition to the room, and made a deal to acquire it.

“We have been truly blessed that Fred and Sara, who passed away in 1997, took a special interest in Brenau and have helped us overcome the increasingly dimming glimpse we have into the past,” said Schrader. “These books ensure that generations of students to come will be able to see some of the great works of the world that will be preserved and available for people long after our Kindles wear out and get replaced by the next generations of reading technology.”