CINCINNATI — If you could use a dose of inspiration – and who couldn’t this year – allow me to introduce you to Roger Grein.
Born in 1942 to an unwed mother who placed him for adoption, Roger was adopted by Frank and Thelma Grein when he was 6 months old. The Greins had tried for years unsuccessfully to have children and were overjoyed with their baby.
But it soon became clear something was wrong.
Frank Grein was away fighting in World War II when the family doctor told his wife that little Roger had a spastic condition resulting from a birth injury. Years later, Grein was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. But when he was a baby, the doctor predicted he might never walk, talk or even recognize his mother. Many people urged Thelma Grein to return her boy to the orphanage, but she refused.
The way Roger Grein tells it, his mother practically willed him to walk, repeating “heel-toe, heel-toe” over and over to guide him until he could walk on his own.
But that’s not the most inspiring part of Grein’s story.
Now 78, Grein has overcome one obstacle after another. He amassed great wealth, which he quietly gave away until he lost millions in 2008 when the value of his stocks plummeted at the start of the Great Recession.
Undeterred, he appealed to friends and family and raised money to start Magnified Giving, a nonprofit that teaches teens about philanthropy by giving them money to contribute to charitable organizations they research. Magnified Giving now has more than 100 local schools involved in its work, modeling Grein’s belief that philanthropy is love.
“I feel so blessed in my life that I had wonderful parents,” Grein said. “Wonderful people that supported me.”
There is so much more about his life detailed in a 39-minute documentary film completed this year called “Roger Grein: An Empowering Philanthropist.” The film is a production of Magnified Giving in association with KPG Creative.
“It was incredibly important to document Roger’s life story,” said Kelly Collison, executive director of Magnified Giving. “It is so layered and so unbelievable at times when he shares the story in person with students and teachers, they’re left gob-smacked, like ‘What? Who does that?’”
Grein does, that’s who.
‘He’s better than all of us’
I first met Roger Grein in late 2012 and interviewed him for a story for the newspaper where I worked before joining WCPO 9. And I have kept up with the work of Magnified Giving in the years since.
When Collison told me about the documentary, it seemed like the perfect reason to report on Grein again to offer a message of hope toward the end of a year that has been so painful for so many of us.
Consider: Grein was collecting bottles for deposit money in elementary school and by sixth grade had saved up enough to buy a lawn mower. By high school he had dozens of lawn-mowing customers and began investing his earnings in the stock market.
He told me that after he watched a movie in school about St. Francis of Assisi, he came to believe that material possessions couldn’t “fill your heart” the way helping others did.
After graduating from the University of Cincinnati, he got fired from his first job at a bank, in part because of his handwriting, and eventually started his own tax preparation business. The more money he earned, the more he gave away, quietly donating millions.
He also became a nationally recognized softball coach -- despite the fact that he never played the game -- and traveled internationally with his teams.
Grein’s philanthropy finally became front-page news in 1999 when he agreed to allow Northern Kentucky University to publicize a major donation in hopes of inspiring others to give. He donated a total of $500,000 to endow scholarships at NKU – including scholarships for students with disabilities -- and to name the university’s softball field for his father.
“The whole thing got blown up,” he said.
Grein had given roughly $7 million by the time he lost his wealth in 2008.
But losing his money has never stopped Grein’s philanthropy.
When he decided at the beginning of this year that he could no longer live independently in the childhood home where he grew up, he donated the house in Lockland to Habitat for Humanity of Greater Cincinnati.
As my husband said the other day when I told him about Grein, “He’s better than all of us.”
But I think the most important thing about Roger Grein’s story is that it can inspire all of us to be better. And that feels like a pretty terrific way to end a pretty terrible year.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.