Ralph Drees admits that the arts aren't his first love. But that hasn't stopped him from donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to museums in Northern Kentucky over the years or from encouraging others to do the same. “I'm not really into arts personally, but I think it's good for the area,” says Drees, chairman of The Drees Co.
That philosophy has guided Drees' decades of charitable giving. He grew up in Northern Kentucky, took over the management of his father's home building company there in 1968, and has worked both personally and professionally to improve the area just over the river from Cincinnati. “He's built this community—literally—in many ways,” says Laurie Risch, executive director of The Behringer-Crawford Museum, located in Covington.
Drees' involvement with Behringer-Crawford, which serves as a history museum for Northern Kentucky, stretches back to the late 1980s, when the museum began to outgrow its space in a 150-year-old home. Its staff started planning for a large expansion project, and Drees signed on with a $100,000 donation of his own.
It took more than 10 years for the project to break ground, but when it did, Drees was still there, and by then, he'd also rounded up others in the community to support the $4.5 million, 15,000-square-foot expansion. His leadership and belief in the museum's mission were crucial to the project's success, Risch says: “It has to be a total buy-in from the community or it won't work. That started with Ralph.”
LOCAL LEADERSHIP Drees cultivated his ability to ask tough questions during his decades at the helm of The Drees Co., the largest home builder in the Cincinnati market—in fact, it's the largest private company, as ranked by revenue, in the area. His son, David, has taken over the mantle of CEO and the day-to-day operations of the company, enabling Ralph to spend more time on charitable work and in his newest position, judge executive of Kenton County, Ky.
The title is a bit misleading—he's not presiding over criminal cases. But the position's no less important for the county's future. Drees is essentially the county's CEO. He and three county commissioners vote on local government issues. He took office in January 2004, filling an unexpired term. He ran unopposed that November, and he intends to run for a full four-year term in November 2006.
Why take on what amounts to a new full-time job when he could otherwise be enjoying semi-retirement at his condo in Florida? For Drees, who interacted frequently with local government as a builder, it was a simple decision. “I was somewhat critical of [government]. I thought maybe I should take it and see what I could do,” he recalls. (He's not making decisions about the same government issues he faced as a builder, though: In Kentucky, most land-use decisions are made at the town or city, not county, level.)
He's made it a mission to take on causes, such as reforming the county's employee benefit system and to push for change without an eye toward the next election. “What do I care about whether I get elected? I don't need this job,” asserts the straight-talking Drees. He's highlighted that fact by instructing the county to donate his annual salary of nearly $100,000 to The Behringer-Crawford Museum and The Carnegie, a visual and performing arts center also located in Covington.
“There's more to life than just being able to write checks. You need to use the talent that God gave you. Ralph does that so well,” observes Judi Gerding, executive director of The Point, a Covington-based organization that provides services to people with mental retardation and developmental disabilities. “He's so committed to making the community a better place.”
DEEP ROOTS For Drees, that sense of community stretches over the years, back to his days as a student at Newport Central Catholic High School. He has maintained ties to the school since his graduation in 1952, helping to coordinate reunions and continuing to meet up with former classmates.
He's connected to today's students, too, through his work with a capital campaign to remodel the school and a donation several years ago to outfit a computer lab with high-tech computers and scanners. That lab, named the Elizabeth Drees Computer Lab in honor of Drees' mother, enabled the school to start a strong graphic-design program. Students design media guides for the sports teams, the school's yearbook, and even advertisements for area newspapers.
At $4,100 a year, tuition at Newport Central Catholic is lower than many nearby private schools, but it remains too high for some of the school's students, 35 percent of whom live in the area's urban core. Donations from Drees and other alumni have allowed the school to continue its tuition assistance program while also planning for an expansion project, says Robert Noll, the school's principal. “We want to be available to anyone. We can do it because of people like him with vision and generosity,” he says. “He hasn't forgotten where he came from.”
The Drees Co. tied that sentiment into its 75th anniversary in 2003. Rather than simply throw a party, the company used its expertise to design and build Drees Pavilion, a banquet hall in local Devou Park, with a beautiful view of downtown Cincinnati. The Pavilion quickly became a hot spot for private parties—Drees and his wife, Irma, plan to host their 50th anniversary party there next year—and thereby a funding source to help preserve the park.
Drees designed the Pavilion with the objective of giving some of the event fees back to the city of Covington. Now, after about two years in business, the hall has already generated some $100,000 for Devou Park's upkeep. “If we were going to do it, we were going to do it right,” Drees says.
Though his philanthropy stretches far and wide across Northern Kentucky, Drees says he's most excited about contributing to capital campaigns. In addition to his help driving renovation and expansion projects at The Behringer-Crawford Museum and Newport Central Catholic, he has led efforts to build a Boy Scouts' camp ranger's house, group homes for The Point, and a 41,000-square-foot addition and renovation to the home of Redwood Rehabilitation Center in Fort Mitchell, which serves children and adults with severe and multiple disabilities.
“It's natural as a builder to want to do capital projects,” he says, adding that once other people see completed projects, they're more likely to give the organizations money for ongoing expenses.
Nancy Henry Chadwick, executive director of The Carnegie, has benefited from the effect of Drees' leadership in giving. “If Ralph's involved in a project, you know it's on the up and up. People recognize that. It's a great kind of currency to have,” she says.
Drees has spent that currency wisely, helping Northern Kentucky organizations prove “that you don't always have to go across the river to get something cool,” Chadwick says.
RALPH DREES AGE: 71
POSITION: Chairman, The Drees Co., Fort Mitchell, Ky.
CHARITABLE WORK: Includes The Behringer-Crawford Museum, The Carnegie, Redwood Rehabilitation Center, The Point, Boy Scouts of America, United Way