Nicholas Fox Weber ’69 Helps on a Personal Level
Nicholas Fox Weber ’69 with two mothers and their children at the Le Kinkeliba maternal health clinic in Goumbayel. Le Kinkeliba is responsible for more than 400 safely delivered births annually.
Photo: Charlotte Weber
Between Angelina Jolie and Bono, it’s hard to say what one should expect the typical third-world development worker to look like these days, and Nicholas Fox Weber ’69 may seem an unlikely face in the crowd. Weber, who earned a B.A. and M.A. in art history, the latter at Yale, is director of the Bethany, Conn.–based Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, which generates and assists with projects pertaining to the work of Bauhaus era artists Josef and Anni Albers. He also is president of American Friends of Le Kinkeliba, the American branch of a Paris-based NGO.
With its local focus, Le Kinkeliba— named after a local West African plant used for medicinal purposes — is quietly improving the quality of life for a growing number of West Africans. Started in 1996 by French dermatologist Gilles Degois with the goal of providing medical facilities and educational programs to remote rural areas of Senegal, Le Kinkeliba has grown organically into a project for integrated development.
Weber became involved with Le Kinkeliba after a chance meeting with Degois in Paris (Weber needed a dermatologist). The meeting led to a visit to Senegal, and that visit led to a long-term commitment on the part of Weber and the Albers Foundation.
When reflecting on his desire to take on a major philanthropic endeavor, Weber looks back to Columbia. He recalls that during the late ’60s, “Most of us were talking about political engagement … it was very much in the mentality of the time, almost more expected of you than that you would make money.” At the time, however, Weber, who grew up in Connecticut with “parents who were ex-Communists but sent me to an old-fashioned New England prep school anyway,” felt himself to be “an outsider with relation to student politics” due to his parents’ affiliations.
Politics aside, Weber was excited to attend the College. “I couldn’t wait to study art history in a place where I could look at the work I was studying, and not just slides on screens. I had heard about some of the great professors there, and craved the energy and humor I associated with Columbia, as well as living in New York,” he says. Starting in sophomore year, Weber wrote a weekly art column for the newspaper Manhattan East.
“The college advisers at Loomis wanted me to consider Williams, Amherst or Yale,” Weber notes. “But I always believed that Columbia was utterly right.”
Le Kinkeliba also was an undertaking that Weber immediately felt good about. “At last I saw something that worked ... it was very simple, it wasn’t theoretical. You arrived with a bag of toothbrushes and gave them to kids who had never had toothbrushes,” he states. But what may be most impressive about Le Kinkeliba is its on-the-ground philosophy. All the builders on its projects are Senegalese, and the staff at Wassadou, its medical facility in Tambacounda, is staffed by Senegalese who are paid by Le Kinkeliba. As a result, the salaries are competitive enough to attract or hold onto talented local workers. The Albers Foundation pays the salary of American Friends of Le Kinkeliba’s one full-time employee, director Anne Barker, and other administrative expenses.
According to Weber, as interest in and support for Le Kinkeliba’s projects expands, the organization is able to create, execute and plan for an increasing number of operations with the aim of serving even more remote communities in the Southeastern corner of Senegal. The American Friends are working to attract the support of U.S.-based foundations and corporations, as well as individuals.
One new Le Kinkeliba project may have gotten its start in the pages of CCT. It was while reading the March/April 2007 issue that Weber spotted the story of Demetri Blanas ’07, who had spent time in Senegal and was on his way to medical school. Before beginning his work at Mt. Sinai, Blanas had made plans to return to Senegal to work at a newly-established government district health center in Saraya. Weber, who was “tremendously impressed with [Blanas’] dedication and capability,” saw an opportunity for a partnership. Since their initial meeting, Weber and Blanas have initiated several public health interventions in Saraya in collaboration with the district health team and are exploring potential new initiatives such as the digging of wells and a mobile health team to serve remote areas.
In addition to his work with the Albers Foundation and Le Kinkeliba, Weber also is an author. His 2007 book, The Clarks of Cooperstown, about a wealthy New York family that made its fortune from real estate and a partnership with the Singer sewing machine family, caused a small stir at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum was to exhibit many of the family’s great collected works of art, but flinched at the book’s inclusion of purported homosexual activity by one of the Clark sons. Weber wrote the 420-page book, he says, “because my editor at Knopf asked me to, saying I would have a bit less than a year to get it done in time for a related show at the Met. I’m fascinated by art and collectors, and this fit in.” And of the tight deadline, Weber quips, “As a Columbia grad, I’m used to working under pressure.” The New York Times said of the book, “… art lovers will be intoxicated by the sheer abundance of masterworks. Here, Weber is at his best, describing the art in a vivid, straightforward manner, free of pedantry. And he has a gift for breathing life into styles now out of vogue.”
Weber has been married for 31 years to novelist Katharine Weber, and they have two daughters, Lucy (26) and Charlotte (24), who went to Senegal with him. He lives in Bethany, Conn., and in Paris, dividing his time equally between the two; he and his wife also spend as much time as possible in rural Ireland, where they have a small house.
Weber’s faith in the scale and mission of Le Kinkeliba goes back to “a wonderful Russian lit class,” he says. “We were reading a work of Pasternak that posed the question: Can a political system make a difference or can an individual?”
Weber, as an individual, makes a pretty good case for the latter.
Merrell Hambleton ’08 and Lisa Palladino