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Ellie McCabe: She liked to find things that were missing in our world, and fill the gap

STORY BY MARY SCHENKEL (Week of January 13, 2022)
Photo of Eleonora “Ellie” Wahlstrom McCabe.

When Eleonora “Ellie” Wahlstrom McCabe, one of Vero’s most prominent philanthropists, passed away on Dec. 26 at age 87, she left behind a legacy of compassion that has touched every corner of the county, from the renowned arts organizations on the barrier island to underserved individuals and agencies throughout the county.

McCabe always said that she inherited a “moral responsibility to give back philanthropically” from her parents, Magnus and Agnes Wahlstrom, who in 1956 established the Wahlstrom Foundation in Bridgeport, Conn.

Upon the death of her father, she assumed leadership of the foundation, and in 2003 it became The Robert F. and Eleonora W. McCabe Foundation. McCabe was predeceased by her beloved husband, Bob, in April 2020.

Their foundation was dissolved April 2017, but its philanthropy continues through a donor-advised fund and the Fund for Better Mental Health in Indian River County endowment, both held by the Indian River Community Foundation.

At the time of the McCabe Foundation’s dissolution, McCabe said, “Although we were never a large foundation, our community impact far surpassed our asset size. I am filled with pride when I think about the organizations, initiatives and projects we helped over the years.”

An understatement, to say the least.

Her most lasting legacy over nearly five decades of philanthropy to the community was in the area of mental health initiatives, to which she devoted her life after the tragic suicide of her son Roy in 1999.

“She dedicated her life and her philanthropy to mental health,” said Ann Marie McCrystal, her friend of 48 years. “She was generous to other needs, but her concentration was mental health. That is her enduring legacy.”

In 2004, McCabe was instrumental in bringing together healthcare professionals, members of the judiciary, school district, law enforcement, the United Way, and other agencies to establish the Mental Health Collaborative of Indian River County. McCabe said of its creation, “Building from the ground floor a continuum of services in a fractured and confusing healthcare system has been our calling and passion.”

“Ellie always recognized the value of bringing leaders from across various disciplines and professions together to tackle entrenched community problems,” said Lisa Kahle, who worked as the Mental Health Collaborative program administrator from 2010-2016, and currently serves as its board chair.

“Understanding the deep personal pain and loss Ellie had endured, the fact that she remained undaunted and hopeful, and worked with such joy and purpose, remains an inspiration and guidepost for me in my work around mental health and other entrenched problems in our community,” said Kahle.

“She was inclusive and gently exacting. She believed that you were absolutely capable of contributing to the solution, and she had no doubt that you would rise to the occasion. Her faith in individuals, combined with the joy and purpose with which she approached this difficult work, inspired and sustained great dedication and action,” added Kahle.

Lenora Ritchie served for 17 years as executive director of the McCabe Foundation, and even afterward, McCabe always said that they were “still actually glued at the hip and the heart.”

Ritchie said that although McCabe was proud of all her work, bringing the University of Florida Psychiatric and Addiction Center to Vero Beach in 2009 was “a crowning moment.” 

“We raised $2 million from philanthropists in the community to start the center and then she endowed the professorship that got the doctor here, and the doctor is in perpetuity. They don’t always have to have the UF Center here, but they always have to have a doctor here,” said Ritchie.

“Ellie was so courageous, and when you think of her, you probably don’t think of her as being courageous. But she truly was not afraid to try really difficult things. And whatever we did, we were going to make things better. She instilled so much confidence in the people she worked with because of that,” said Ritchie.

“It was that Swedish heritage. Her father was such a hardworking Swedish immigrant. He did really well for himself in America, and he gave back just as hard. And that’s what Ellie did, and I think that’s what this community benefited from,” said Ritchie.

“She was a very linear thinker, and I always knew we were getting somewhere when she said, ‘OK, what’s step one?’ She was never as happy as when she had a project, and she liked to start things from scratch,” said Ritchie. “She really liked to find things that were missing in the world and fill the gap. What brought her joy was creating new things.” 

One of those was the McCabe Connection Center, which Kahle said “will always be guided by her beautiful, resilient spirit. McCabe funded the center, which grew out of the Collaborative, as a hub to connect people needing services with the providers that offer them.”

Another was the Funders Forum, which McCabe and the late Richard Stark formulated in 1992.

“She felt there were people coming to the island who had no idea what the needs were. And she felt that they needed to have a place to go to say, ‘Look, I would like to do something here in the community philanthropically. What are the options?’” said McCrystal.

“She was very in-tune, astute and aware; intuitive about what needed to be done. So, she put together that group of philanthropists, invited people to join, and they discussed the needs. And she brought in organizations to present their needs,” said McCrystal.

In 1999, McCabe established the John’s Island Foundation after learning that there were no funders assisting nonprofits with their capital expenditures. That foundation has since granted more than $13 million.

She also provided incubator space at the McCabe Foundation offices to such start up organizations as Indian River Impact 100, which evolved out of the Women and Philanthropy initiative she established to educate women about finances and philanthropy.

Another organization to use her incubation space was the Indian River County Community Foundation, established in 2008. Rick McDermott said that to raise funding for initial expenses, he approached 50 people and asked them to contribute $5,000 a year for five years.

“I went to Ellie and Bob and said, out of respect for you, I’d like you to be the first to say yes and she said, ‘Done.’  So, she was the first person to become a founder of the Community Foundation, which now is coming up to close to $100 million in funds,” said McDermott.

Among her numerous contributions to the arts, McCabe headed a successful capital campaign in 1983 to build what is today the Vero Beach Museum of Art. In 1986, while serving as its board chair, she started the Chairman’s Club, which has since expanded to multiple levels. At this year’s annual dinner, VBMA chief executive officer Brady Roberts said those memberships now account for one quarter of the museum’s operating revenue.

Riverside Theatre was also privy to her generosity, including in 1991 when she donated funds in memory of her mother for the Agnes Wahlstrom Youth Playhouse, which became the home of Riverside Children’s Theatre.

“There was nothing that was going to stop Ellie once she put her mind to it,” said McCrystal. “She made such a difference in this community; she made an impact, and she left a legacy that will continue. It will never die.”