Warren and Mary Lynn Staley have done just what they wanted for nearly a decade of retirement.

Building houses from Minneapolis to Mexico to Asia with “sweat-equity,” working-poor owners through Habitat for Humanity. Donating the capital to help 200,000 small farmers and grass-roots entrepreneurs, disproportionately women, in developing countries through microlender Opportunity International. Leading with funds and hands-on support to build a badly needed high school in Ghana that now boards and instructs about 800 students.

And they continue to be quiet, key supporters of educational and charitable causes in Minnesota and elsewhere.

“We’ve been very fortunate along the way,” Mary Lynn Staley said. “And we are grateful … for the opportunity to make use of our time and treasure.”

The Staleys grew up in working-class families. Warren rose through the ranks to become chief executive of Cargill, the world’s largest private company. They are gracious people with a vitality that belies they are in their 70s. And they ask no credit for investing millions in education, health and opportunity for others.

They agreed to be recognized in a public ceremony this month as “outstanding philanthropists” by the Minnesota Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) only because they were persuaded that recognition often inspires others to give.

“They decided as a young couple to give back all their lives and they have lived that,” said Heather Christopherson, vice president of advancement at nonprofit People Incorporated and president of the AFP Minnesota chapter. “They are generous with resources and time, and they are hands-on.”

Warren Staley, an electrical engineer who grew up the son of a railroad worker, and Mary Lynn Staley, a former public school teacher, never expected great success or fortune when they married after graduating from Kansas State University.

“Every American is lucky to be born or immigrate here,” Warren Staley said. “It also takes some good luck along the way, especially to accumulate financial resources. We feel an obligation to do what we do. And we are blessed to do that. The gratitude of people … is amazing.”

The incalculable return on their investment is getting to know some of the thousands of students, homeowners, small farmers and entrepreneurs who have improved their lives and their families thanks to the opportunity.

The desire of the Staleys to invest in the poor was rooted partly in a Ford Foundation fellowship that they accepted after graduate school in 1967. They worked with the poor in Cali, Colombia. Warren Staley realized later that in a system where a relatively few families control the power and wealth, he never would have been allowed to get an education and advance as he did at Cargill. Colombia over the years has been beset by class conflict, drug wars and insurrection. The Staleys, who speak Spanish, were struck by the disparity between rich and poor and lack of opportunity to advance.

Years ago, Warren Staley was a founder of the Minnesota Education Leadership Foundation and its successor that helped focus private and public funding on quality preschool to ensure low-income kids, disproportionately minority, are ready for kindergarten. He’s still involved.

Their church, Our Lady of Grace, has a relationship with a Catholic church in Mamponteng, Ghana. The Minnesotans helped the poor rural parishioners with building improvements and a preschool. The Staleys led a capital campaign that resulted in an 800-student high school and dormitories, designed and built by locals. The Staleys know many among the first graduating class of boys and girls.

“There is no lack of talent or brainpower in Africa,” said Mary Lynn Staley, who has served on the Habitat and Opportunity boards as well.

The Staleys, through their engaged children and grandchildren, have established a family foundation that will ensure the giving continues.

Most of the “sweat-equity” owners on Habitat builds, or scholarship students, or microloan recipients in Africa or Latin America who work with the Staleys do not know they are people of means. That’s the way they like it. They are awed by the hardworking recipients and the volunteers they meet along the way who are able to write only small checks.

Giving is good business for the soul.



Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.