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‘Quiet’ philanthropist will be missed by many

By Staff | Mar 11, 2016

Sanibel, Captiva and Greater Lee County have lost a valued member of the community last week. Although they kept a low profile, those who knew John Boler, and his wife Mary Jo, were fans for life of this gentleman. John Boler passed away on March 4, 2016, at his home in Chicago, surrounded by his loving family, which, if you asked him would have been his proudest accomplishment.

There are many residents of Sanibel and Captiva who mourn his loss and few who were not touched by him, whether they were aware of his kindness or generosity or not, as the Boler family made many anonymous donations throughout the county and country.

Lee Ellen Harder, executive director of Big Arts shared this poignant memory. “I knew John personally and he was such a warm, generous and fun person. He was very quiet but very social. John loved his affiliation with Big Arts and the garden he and Mary Jo donated and loved to attend all the gatherings in Boler garden. He loved to come and see people having lunch, doing crafts or attending receptions at many of the events held in the Boler Garden. He always enjoyed being at events and always came with a crowd – he brought his many friends to 10-12 events per year. You could see on his face how thrilled he was and how much community involvement meant to him. Big Arts is so grateful to the Bolers as they have enabled us to keep fulfilling our mission on Sanibel to bring quality cultural and educational programs to the community. I will miss him very much.”

Amanda Cross, Chair for Sanibel Captiva Cares, which has contributed over $10 million to the Golisano Children’s Hospital Capital Campaign, shared this memory of John and his generosity. “John and Mary Jo Boler are well known on the islands as being extremely generous donors to the local non-profits.”

“I had the pleasure of meeting John and Mary Jo, when Pete and Pat Allen brought them as their guests to the 2008 SanCap Cares event that raises money for Golisano Children’s Hospital. While I did not talk to John often – maybe once every year or two – when we did talk they were very focused and informative conversations as John shared some of his views on philanthropy. John wanted to make sure that his donations would make a positive impact. So instead of just writing checks to a worthy cause, he would first want to learn about specific needs of an organization and then target those needs.”

“Years ago he told me a story about his daughter who was working for a non-profit in the Chicago area. The non-profit would regularly hold blood drives. But since they didn’t own a bloodmobile, they would have to borrow one from a neighboring town. So John bought them their own bloodmobile.”

“He made the same kind of thoughtful gifts to Golisano Children’s Hospital. At our 2009 event, the Bolers and the Allens together chipped in and bought a ‘cooling blanket’ that would help babies deprived of oxygen at birth avoid brain damage. At a later event John bought a special incubator for transporting sick newborns from the Maternity Ward to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.”

“John really helped me understand that raising money wasn’t just about promoting a worthy cause; it was about developing relationships with those potential donors. I consider John a mentor and will miss those conversations.”

Erick Lindblad, SCCF Executive Director shared the following thought about the impact of the Bolers. “Preserving the last wildlife corridor along the Sanibel River would not have happened without John and Mary Jo Boler’s support. The Boler Tract is an integral part of the Bob Wigley Preserve, made possible by their generosity.”

John Boler and Mary Jo’s philanthropy also extended throughout Lee County where he was a large donor of the Lee Memorial Health System and the Harlem Heights Foundation.

Kathryn Kelly, Founder/President/CEO of the Heights Foundation spoke eloquently about the impact of the Bolers on the Heights Foundation, which works to build self-sufficient families in the Fort Myers Harlem Heights neighborhood with a population of 90 percent of African-American and Hispanic families in the lower 40 percent of the county’s poverty range.

“At The Heights Foundation and The Heights Center, we are very saddened to hear of John Boler’s passing. He impacted so many lives, not just in Chicago and on Sanibel. John and Mary Jo have been longtime donors of ours and loved our work in the Harlem Heights neighborhood. John was particularly taken by our Heights kids, as he could relate to growing up in difficult circumstances. And he loved that we expect the best from our kids, despite their circumstances. When we were building The Heights Center during the recession, John and Mary Jo made a $1,000,000 gift to our capital campaign, which I believe was a tipping point for other donors to join in and complete the funding. John and Mary Jo subsequently donated another $600,000 to The Heights Center. They would visit The Heights Center, and particularly enjoyed interacting with our AfterSchool kids. John told them he believed, that, with hard work, they could do whatever they set their minds to. Last April, our kids insisted on giving birthday wishes to John, so we put them on speaker phone to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him.”

“To honor John and Mary Jo’s generosity, we named our education wing after The Boler Family Foundation. At the celebration, the Bolers and their daughters joined other donors and well-wishers for the celebration. Our kids sang ‘You are a Treasure’; which I believe sums up our feelings for John Boler. He was a treasure, and he will be sadly missed.”

Dorothy Fitzgerald, Sanibel resident, Trustee for the Lee Memorial Health System Foundation and vice president of Southwest Children’s Charities has been a friend of the Boler family and shared the following:

“John Boler truly was a man that lived a life that was purposeful. He had the most positive disposition, with a very deep faith, and practiced a disciplined approach to life; accompanied by a strong desire to give back to the communities he lived in. I think that his passion and compassion towards those that needed help to rise above their circumstances, was why he strongly related to the fundamental needs of children in education and healthcare.”

“During the years that I had the opportunity to know John he was generous in providing much needed equipment to the Golisano Children’s Hospital. One of the most remarkable donations that he made in SWFL, was a donation of $1 million dollars to help complete The Heights Center of Harlem Heights, followed up by another $600,000 donation. John was driven in life and worked hard to become an incredibly successful businessman. His incredible drive, passion, compassion will change lives in SWFL for generations to come.”

“John loved his family, and his wife Mary Jo was clearly his best friend in life. He was serious and driven when he wanted something done; he was enthusiastic about the causes he loved; he enjoyed people, entertaining, having fun and he loved a good sense of humor. He will be missed by many, but the example of a life well lived will live on in the hearts of many forever.”

According to long-time friend, Paul McCarthy of Captiva Cruises, John came from humble beginnings.

“For John’s entire life, he was generous and kind but he was also focused on hard work,” McCarthy said. His dad died when he was young and John worked as a paper boy to support the family. While John worked hard, he also wanted to be able to have a good time in life.”

“I have known John for 30 years and knew them in Chicago through their daughter, Judy, who was dating a friend of mine. Interestingly enough, I was running a boat business in Chicago and Judy and her boyfriend approached me to see if I could help to organize a surprise birthday party for John’s wife, Mary Jo, for her 50th birthday. We did a cruise and at that point I met the entire family. That’s when I discovered that the Bolers had a place in Sanibel and I was on Captiva. They were winter vacationers at that time with their kids still in school and he was still active in his business. I had my business here seasonally at that time and the rest of the year in Chicago where I would see them at many family events. During those years, John would have a business meeting for his Chicago company in Florida in February for his key staff and John would ask me to do a social event the last day so that all employees could meet and get to know each other. He was very smart and logical and he thought that his employees would learn something new (like environmental awareness), and he wanted it done first class to show the employees how important he felt they were. John was a great person, remarkably loyal and a great friend. He always looked out for his friends first and if there was an issue where he may be affected, it was more important to him on how it affected others. His first question was how does it impact others and how can we make it better? He also wanted employees to have an opportunity to socialize and get to know each other personally which was very important to him. I ended up doing this for him for the past 25 years. I actually did the company party last week even though he wasn’t here because it was that important to him.”

McCarthy continued, “John shared with me that when he was a senior in high school, he took the statewide math test and came in number 1. Because of that he was offered a full scholarship to John Carroll in Cleveland and it was life changing. That was also where he met the love of his life, Mary Jo. He shared with me that he met her at a dance and stated the next day that he was going to marry her and he did. John went on to start a global business called The Boler Company and has been an incredibly successful business person. He tempered bad times with the economy and had the sense, stamina, and patience to work through the bad and good times. He was very practical but was very reluctant not to over extend himself. He served as advisor on many different boards. He would probably tell you that he was successful because he held his workers in the highest regard and so strongly felt that if you were honest and supportive of friends that it came back to you. He used his resources to enrich the lives of his employees and they supported him in return. He had a very low turnover of employees because they felt like family – it went beyond business – his business was truly an enormous family company and he always considered all the people who worked for him as family. We would talk about how he made decisions not in his best interest, but the interest of people who worked for him and that was how he lived his life. He was incredibly empathetic of his fellow man and had an amazing and loving relationship with his wife Mary Jo. “

“As John’s success in life grew, his and Mary Jo’s philanthropic efforts grew. They gave far more money anonymously than they gave with their names on in gifts. The John Boler Business School and Athletic Centers are named after his family and he supported many scholarships. He was always paying back and was grateful for how his life had turned and wanted to be able to give people a chance to move up. He supported many medical communities and was a number one private donor to the American Cancer of United States. John Boler was very supportive of organizations with a strong volunteer background. A number of organizations around Sanibel benefited greatly from his and Mary Jo’s anonymous donations. They believed in conservation and worked with SCCF, Big Arts, and they basically funded part of the Strauss Theater which he requested be called Strauss theater in honor of their dear friends, but the majority of the funding was theirs. Anything you can think of on the island, John and Mary Jo were involved in. They were very modest and weren’t into recognition – in later years people discovered who they were and their anonymity was lost.”

“It would be hard to measure his impact on me. Knowing him for decades, he was a friend, a mentor, he felt like a family member and I was included in family events. Boler events at his home were so warm and friendly with Mary Jo’s Italian foods – John gave me the gift of all that and his family. The thing with John Boler is that after you spent any time with him, you aspired to be a better person because of him. He led by example – he was a gentleman, ethical, smart, gregarious, humble and had so many remarkable attributes that he shared with others and was more interested in calling attention to others. He was wild about his children. If you asked him, I think he would say that the biggest accomplishment for him and Mary Jo was their family. He raised his family and cultivated friends. I don’t know of anyone like him who had his gifts yet was so humble. He was true to himself and was the same person he was as a child. He referred to himself as a paperboy. He was a gift to those who know him. His passing is recognition of what you had with him not his loss.”

McCarthy closes with the following remembrance, “A number of us went up to see him 2-3 weeks ago in the ICU -he was bright, alert and funny – he had an amazing sense of humor and wanted to entertain people instead of them entertaining him. He put others before himself always.”

John is survived by his wife of 58 years Mary Jo (Lombardo), daughters Judy (Ray) McCormack, Jill (Dan) McCormack, sons Jim (Celeste) Boler, Mike (Jamie) Boler, and Matt (Christine) Boler, and 13 grandchildren, Danny, Luke, Matt, John, Alex, Ray, Michael, Katie, Ben, Tricia, Domenic, Gina, and John. His sisters, Marilyn (Bill) Lowe, JoAnna (Jim) Cunningham, and Betty Jo (Bill) Whetro, his brother in law, Dave Lombardo, and many nieces and nephews. He was preceded in death by his son John Matthew and his sisters Barbara and Nancy.