AUGUSTA — Philanthropist Elsie Pike Viles, who gave her heart and her money to support local causes, died Saturday at age 98.
Donations from the Elsie & William Viles Foundation built the healing garden at the Harold Alfond Center for Cancer Care and helped fund the new Alfond Center for Health, the proposed Lithgow Public Library expansion, the building of the Kennebec Valley YMCA, the stained-glass window restoration at South Parish Congregational Church and the auditorium at Cony High School, among many other civic endeavors.
Viles, who was surprisingly tall when she stood up from a chair and who had a wide variety of hats to wear in public, had spent much of the past few years on the first floor of the historic Cony/Manley House on Stone Street, where she had lived since 1955. She died at home, said her longtime friend and attorney, Warren Winslow.
Grandson Will Lund said Viles “was a wonderful grandmother.” The Viles’ home had served as the family’s focal point in recent decades.
“The family is scattered around the country, and this house served as a host location for holiday events; and she was always very pleased to have the family here,” Lund said. “She had a sense of fun.
Whether it was a theme like hats or simply an outside gathering in the summer, she managed to infuse fun into her outdoor activities in a way that really attracted people to her and to whatever causes she was working with at the time.”
Lund said Viles knew how to leverage her money and influence to gain donations from others and frequently set up matching grant challenges.
“She made sure she was comfortable with the charity or with the cause before she extended herself,” Lund said. “She asked the tough questions, so recipients were expected to remain accountable as well. She accomplished everything she set out to do in her 98 years.”
By early Monday, Lund already had received almost 75 condolence messages and calls.
“It’s incredible, the numbers of lives she touched here,” Lund said. “Her focus was on the Augusta area. She resisted the temptation to think too broadly and too globally. She knew she could make a difference in this area, and she wanted to see the results and hear from the people who benefited from her charity.”
Viles had shared the home with her late husband, Bill, who owned a timber company, a paper company and the former Augusta Lumber Co. He had bought the home in 1930, and Elsie Viles’ will leaves the property to the foundation, Winslow said.
Winslow said Viles took a personal interest in each charity she supported.
“Her enthusiasm was contagious,” Winslow said. “No matter what project she was interested in, she could get other people interested in that as well. I’ll never forget about five years ago one of the local charities made arrangements for Elsie to come over to make arrangements to give funds to their charity. At the end of the meeting, Elsie was able to talk the chair of the group into giving to one of the projects she was working on.”
In 2007, she was recognized by the Legislature for her community contributions, and then-Gov. John E. Baldacci named her “first lady for a day.”
On a 2008 “Cornerstone: The Story of Elsie Viles” video about Viles’ life and contributions to the community, Viles talks about why she donated to a project or organization: “I want to make it even better than it is, if I can. What you choose to do lasts.”
Augusta City Manager William Bridgeo described Viles as “the most impressive philanthropist and community booster I ever met. Elsie was a neighbor, and she and I shared many delightful conversations and moments together over the years. Her whole life was about her family, her friends and her community. I’ll miss her very much.”
Viles’ recent contributions include a $500,000 donation for the proposed renovation and expansion of Lithgow Public Library, $10,000 from the William and Elsie Viles Foundation to build a proposed memorial to patients who died at the former Augusta Mental Health Institute, $1 million to create the William and Elsie Viles Healing Garden at MaineGeneral’s Alfond Center for Cancer Care, and $500,000 to Team Cony to help build Cony High School. She donated much of the money for the restoration of the stained-glass windows at South Parish Congregational Church, which she attended most of her life.
She grew up at 11 Flagg St. in Augusta, almost next to the church, and later bought that house and donated it to the church as a parsonage.
She graduated from Cony in 1931 and went to work as a secretary in the job-printing department at the Kennebec Journal for 24 years before marrying Bill Viles. He died in December 1986.
She was also a founder of the Viles Arboretum in Augusta and Camp KV for Kids in Readfield, donated and raised money for the Kennebec Valley Humane Society, served on the FORUMA arts board and the University of Maine at Augusta Foundation, was a master gardener who was active with the local garden club, spearheaded fundraising for the Kennebec Historical Society, served on the Capital Planning Commission, and helped redecorate the Blaine House.
In 1994 she telephoned Daniel Wathen, then chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, and offered to buy and donate the 9-acre property next door — which belonged to her stepdaughter, former city councilor and legislator Sylvia Lund, who died in 2007 — so it could become a judicial office and conference center.
Wathen accepted eagerly. Later, Viles also supplied a large Maine granite conference table for the main room, complete with the Maine State Seal and the names of each of the 16 counties.
“You name it, and she was a part of it. There aren’t too many things she hasn’t helped out in this area,” friend Roger Pomerleau said of Viles’ service and contributions to community groups and projects.
“But with all that, she was a very humble person, very down-to-earth. Sometimes money changes people, but not her.”
“With her kindhearted spirit and extraordinary generosity, Elsie dedicated herself to improving the lives of those around her,” Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said in a prepared statement mourning Viles’ death.
Knowlton Hewins Roberts Funeral Homes is handling the arrangements, which will be private, Winslow said.
Staff Writer Keith Edwards contributed to this report.
Betty Adams — 621-5631