In 1940, John Lee Pratt, a director at General Motors and past vice president, donated 250 shares of GM stock to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to “foster the personal, creative efforts of Virginia’s best artists and most promising art students who are in need of financial assistance.” In the first year, three artists benefitted from Pratt’s philanthropy, followed by thousands of others in subsequent decades. To this day, VMFA Visual Arts Fellowships are still largely funded by the Pratt endowment and supplemented by other gifts.
The Fredericksburg native began his successful career as an engineer at DuPont and, in 1919, he transferred to General Motors, which at the time was affiliated with DuPont. Working for the leading automobile manufacturer from 1919 to 1937, Pratt became vice president in 1922 and served on the Board of Directors from 1923 until he resigned in 1968. Early in his career at GM, he advised the company not to sell its Frigidaire Division, going on to make valuable improvements to the company’s new product, the refrigerator, and also playing an instrumental role in the development of Freon. Pratt was also called upon to expand the market for the diesel engine, which was being made by one of GM’s divisions, and soon all major railroads were using and saving money with diesel locomotives. Alfred Sloan, former president of General Motors, called Pratt “one of the best businessmen I have ever known.”
Prior to World War II, Pratt entered public service and was appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt to serve on the War Resources Board. He was a moving factor in the development of the Lend Lease Program and its adoption by congress, subsequently playing an active role in its administration.
In addition to the money donated to fund the VMFA Fellowship program, Pratt and his wife, Lillian, quietly donated millions of dollars to universities, research centers, and other charities. But their philanthropy extended beyond dollars. Pratt served on the boards of Johns Hopkins University, The Sloan Kettering Institute, and a local Fredericksburg, Virginia bank. When Mrs. Pratt died in 1947, she left her collection of Tsar Nicholas’s jewels, including her famous Faberge eggs, to VMFA. When Mr. Pratt died in 1975, he left their home, Chatham, and the surrounding 30 acres in Fredericksburg, to the National Park Service. Their generosity will have an impact on Virginia for generations to come.