Read Michael Marsicano’s love letter to Charlotte, the city he never intended to call home
Today marks a pivot point in Charlotte history: Michael Marsicano retires from the Foundation For the Carolinas. And true to form, he’s kept meetings on his schedule right up until 5pm.
Why it matters: Marsicano, who turned 67 Thursday, will be remembered as one of Charlotte’s most significant modern characters, a bridge between the spunky, youthful city of the late 20th century and whatever maturity we’ll hit later in the 21st.
- In 23 years as CEO, he’s powered the Foundation into one of the most vital community organizations in the country, raising more than $6 billion in contributions, steering Charlotte’s wealth toward community needs like affordable housing.
- Before that, he ran the Arts & Science Council in the 1990s, using that position to create social change across the city — first withholding money from arts organizations that associated with segregated country clubs, then holding firm in a controversy over “Angels in America” that received national attention.
It’s quite a body of work for a person who moved here in 1989 planning to use Charlotte as a steppingstone to a job in Washington or New York.
- “Charlotte was on the way to …” he told me once, echoing a sentiment felt by many folks who move here and wind up staying. “But this place gets in your blood.”
Driving the news: About 600 people piled into Knight Theater on Wednesday night to shower him with a program that Foundation COO Laura Smith called “a love letter to a man who’s shown love to everyone in this room.”
The presenters were a who’s who:
- Charles Randolph-Wright, a York, S.C. native who directed and produced Broadway’s hit Motown, delivered a Duke basketball jersey with Marsicano’s name on the back, to honor his work for his alma mater.
- Mayor Vi Lyles presented him with a surprise induction into the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, North Carolina’s highest civilian honor.
- Former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl presented him with ‘Two Ponderosa,” a piece by landscape painter Marshall Noice that will be displayed permanently at the Foundation’s art gallery.
- And Harvey Gantt, who was Charlotte’s first Black mayor, introduced Marsicano.
What he’s saying: Marsicano had the final words. He delivered a tight (10 minutes) but eloquent speech. He thanked his family — wife, Leslie, and their three children, and his 93-year-old father, who was in attendance.
The bulk of his speech, though, was a love letter of his own, to Charlotte.
His words captured why many of us choose to call this striving, flawed, adolescent, still-finding-itself city home. Rather than summarize, I figured I’d just share an excerpt here, edited slightly for brevity and clarity:
“Charlotte runs on the currency of reciprocity. If you have a good idea to move us forward, there is someone in a leadership position in this community who will bring your idea to life. And when we all experience it, and we all have in this room, such robust generosity and spirit and action, we find ourselves compelled if not called to participate.
The more Charlotte has given to me, the more I’ve wanted to give back.
It’s been said that change happens at the speed of trust. Hugh (McColl) and I once had a conversation about the progress of the Foundation. He suggested that our success was a reaction to the lost trust of institutions. And his belief that the Foundation had become a trust builder.
So behind the big numbers and community initiatives could something deeper be at play? Could the Foundation have become the center of reciprocity in a city that runs on it, and a place of increasing trust in a landscape of distrust? If true, nothing could be more career-affirming.
My first lens on this community was nothing more than a mark on the way to somewhere else — Chicago, San Francisco, or the bright lights of Manhattan. Along the way, I fell in love with Charlotte. Personal ambitions gave way to the collective ambition I would come to share with you: namely the opportunity to build a great city, rather than try to conquer an already great city elsewhere. And then there is our audacity to believe we can build a city to be better than those cities.
There’s a 50-year period during which the personality of any city is defined, after which it is largely unchangeable. Chicago, San Francisco, NYC, all defined. Charlotte on the other hand is somewhere — I don’t know where, but somewhere — in its 50-year period of definition. How lucky all of us have been to land here in this place, at this time, sharing this historic moment with the rare opportunity to shape a city and a region forever.”
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