Today, the Clay Center provides an enriching experience for West Virginians to enjoy with their families and friends. Although many people know the Clay Center name, they may not know about the generous people who were the driving force for a place designed to inspire learning, to educate and entertain for many generations to come. Those brothers, Lyell and Buckner Clay II, wanted to leave a legacy that would enrich generations of West Virginians to come.
The Clay Foundation
Twenty-three years ago, the late Lyell and Buckner Clay sold their family-owned business, Charleston Newspapers, along with several other media properties in order to establish the Clay Foundation. The goal was to give away as much money as possible to organizations and worthwhile projects in need. The inspiration for this new foundation came from a simple but meaningful line from the last will and testament of the Clays’ father which read, "I express the wish that my wife shall contribute something from my estate to help the poor and needy, the sick or unfortunate, preferable through some worthy organization or organizations."
In a 1987 article from the Charleston Daily Mail, Lyell explained, "I really feel that we are trustees for all that which we are given in life. If we’re lucky enough to make money instead of losing it, I think that charges us with a kind of fiduciary responsibility to do something with it." To handle the daily operations and the financial responsibilities, the brothers hired Clay Foundation President Charles Avampato, who had previously worked for them at the newspaper business.
"When I first found out that they were going to leave money to the foundation, they talked about wanting to make a gift to the community," Avampato remembers. "So, I knew that it would be my obligation to find out what was going on in the community. When I found out about [the late] John McClaugherty’s dream to have a performance hall here with a complex for the museum, I realized that this should be the family gift." With the help of McClaugherty, Avampato then went about purchasing the block of land on which the Clay Center now sits. In the initial planning stages, it was estimated that the Clay Center project would cost a total of anywhere from $35 million to $50 million from start to finish.
"As we started putting the pieces together, it became obvious that we weren’t even close in our estimates for the total cost of the project," explains Avampato. "There were so many items that kept creeping up. There were so many unknowns. This is a one-of-a-kind building. There aren’t that many around with all of this in one facility." But when the Clays committed to supporting a project, they made sure to see it through. If the fundraising or planning reached a "stalemate," as Avampato calls it, the Clay Foundation would kick in the necessary funds to keep things going. "There were times when we made grants just to increase the quality of the Center or to increase incentive to others supporting the project.
In 1999, it was officially decided that the Center would be named after the two remarkable brothers, Lyell and Buckner, whose passion for the arts and dedication to the state of West Virginia drove them to make this their signature project to carry on their family legacy. In addition, the brothers were so grateful to Avampato for his help over the years that they chose to name the museum The Charles M. Avampato Discovery Museum. After years of planning and construction, the Clay Center for the Arts & Sciences – West Virginia officially opened on July 12, 2003. Since then, more than 900,000 visitors have been entertained and educated at the Center, and more than 50,000 school children participate in the Center’s educational programs annually.
"There is no question that the Center would not exist were it not for the dedication and commitment of Lyell and Buck Clay and the Foundation," said Clay Center President and CEO Judy Wellington. "Although others also made generous donations to the Center, the Clay Foundation was always there to help the Center and push it forward, not just through funding but also through Chuck Avampato’s untiring personal commitment and assistance as a Center Board member and treasurer. It is now our responsibility to nurture and preserve this incredible gift to the community."
Over the years, the Clay Foundation has given nearly $59 million to the Center, including capital campaign funding and yearly operating gifts. And although the foundation is now coming to a close, Avampato will continue to see the Clay brothers’ wishes through. "We’ve got to continue what we started here. There’s a whole generation of people who just don’t know the past and don’t know what we were trying to do here," he says. "It’s important for them to know the history because this way they can continue to promote what we started. The younger generation is our future, so we’ve got to get them involved and get their support."
Lyell was the former chairman of Clay Communications, Inc. and publisher/owner of the Charleston Daily Mail. A songwriter and composer, Lyell wrote "West Virginia’s Home To Me." Among his many honors are being one of The State Journal’s "55 Best Things About WV," WVU Foundation’s 2000 Most Loyal West Virginian, 1998 College of Creative Arts Dean’s Award, the 1993 Spirit of the Valley Community Award, the Sunday Gazette-Mail’s 1992 West Virginian of the Year, and the 1996 Marshall University Business College Hall of Fame Award. He earned an M.B.A. from West Virginia University in 1975. He received a B.A. in music education from Williams College in 1944, an LLB from the University of Virginia in 1948, an M.A. from Marshall University in 1956, a Doctor of Letters from the University of Charleston in 1987 and Doctor of Laws from the West Virginia Graduate College in 1993. Clay was also a 1967 graduate of Harvard University’s advanced management program.
Buckner Clay served both his community and his country. He served with an attachment of the British Army - the American Field Service - in North Africa and India from 1942-44. He worked for the Charleston Daily Mail from 1950-1954 and Charleston Newspapers from 1962-1985. From 1957 through 1985, he was the vice president and secretary for Clay Communications, Inc. Buckner Clay was a former board member of the Charleston chapters of The Red Cross, the Boy Scouts of America, and the Family Service of Kanawha Valley. He was on the board of governors for Edgewood Country Club, was board chairman for Highland Hospital. He attended Choate School, Class of 1938 and the University of Virginia, Class of 1942.
RIGHT: Lyell Clay signs the I-beam during the "Top It Off" ceremony. The beam, the last to be placed in the Maier Foundation Performance Hall, was signed by staff and community members on May 14, 2001.
AT TOP: Buckner (sitting) and Lyell Clay