Otto Haas was the quintessential entrepreneur. Forced to go
to work at the age of 15 after the death of his father, a civil servant in
Stuttgart, Germany, Otto partnered with the chemist Otto Röhm, little more than
a decade later, to create the Rohm and Haas Company, a maker of leather tanning
materials. Haas expanded the fledgling company to Philadelphia in 1909 and
worked tirelessly over the next half century to create a successful American
corporation, which he ran with a firm hand up until two days before his death
Otto had a dynamic and influential partner in Phoebe Haas.
Born on the North Dakota frontier, she traveled to Vassar and Berkeley to earn
undergraduate degrees in mathematics and astronomy. She was among the first
women to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy, and met her husband in 1913 while traveling
to South America to study the southern sky. Otto and Phoebe were married in
1914. Together, they created the Phoebe Waterman Foundation in 1945, to help
fatherless children (including those who had lost a father during World War II)
and support medical and educational institutions. Upon his death, much of
Otto’s estate was given to the Foundation.
Sons F. Otto and John C. Haas, who followed their father
into the family business, took on leadership roles at both the chemical company
and the Foundation. In terms of philanthropy, F. Otto and his wife Dorothy (who
also served on the board) were most interested in protecting open green space,
historic preservation, and arts and cultural institutions. John and his wife
Chara primarily focused on efforts to improve the quality of life for children
and families, especially in disadvantaged communities.
Along the way, the brothers chose to name the foundation
after William Penn, a 17th century Quaker whose pursuit of an exemplary society
led to his founding of Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love.
These quiet, soft spoken, but persistent brothers helped
transform the area around Independence Mall from a neglected part of the city
to an international tourist destination, reinvigorated both the local and
national Boys and Girls Club and United Way organizations, transformed the
Morris Arboretum, and supported efforts to improve opportunities for minorities
in Philadelphia and as far away as South Africa. Their accomplishments were
recognized in 1987 with the Powell Award, Philadelphia’s highest award for
vital contributions to the city’s health. They were chosen “not just for their
philanthropy, but for their personal commitment to improve the quality of
living conditions in Philadelphia.”
John served as chairman of the board of the Foundation until
1992, more than 32 years in that leadership position. F. Otto died in 1994, but
his legacy has been furthered by his brother and the next generation of their
family, who currently lead the Foundation.
In 2009, just a few months short of its 100th anniversary,
the Rohm and Haas Company was acquired by The Dow Chemical Company. In December
2009, John directed a significant portion of the family’s charitable assets
from that sale to the William Penn Foundation in the same low-key manner in
which his parents had contributed their own personal wealth over time.
The contribution of $747 million in assets to the Foundation
strengthens its capacity and ensures a strong future for its work. The legacy
of the Haas family, so ably led by John and F. Otto through the closing decades
of the 20th century continues today, with F. Otto’s son Thomas serving as chair
of the corporation and John’s son David as chair of the board.
Thanks to John and the tangible and intangible gifts that
he, his brother, and his parents have given, the Foundation will continue to
play an important role as an institution devoted to improving the quality of
life in Greater Philadelphia.
Written for the Foundation by Laura Hadden, principal of Riverbend Communications, a
Philadelphia-area firm specializing in writing and editing. Hadden spent most of
her career with the Rohm and Haas Company in a variety of communications roles,
and has known both John C. and F. Otto Haas for many years.
Otto and Phoebe Haas
Why William Penn? The Foundation is named for the 17th-century Quaker whose pursuit of an exemplary society and understanding of human possibilities led to his founding of Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love.