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Surprise Diagnosis Inspires Life Insurance Gift Decades Later

Surprise Diagnosis Inspires Life Insurance Gift Decades Later
Bill and Laura Hewitt

The Hewitts made their gift in the form of a life insurance policy, an excellent way to leverage today's charitable dollars for a much larger gift in the future.

Benefits include:

  • The ability to make a large gift at a relatively low cost.
  • Premiums are fully deductible as a charitable gift.
  • In some cases, an immediate charitable deduction.
  • Possible reduction in estate taxes.
  • The ability to retain control of the policy with some plans.

Questions about making a gift of life insurance? Please contact our Gift Planning Office at 800-810-6872 or send us an email at jernigat@musc.edu.

In each case, please consult with your attorney or accountant for additional details and advice.

Long before Bill and Laura Hewitt became such prominent local philanthropists, they were a young couple at a crossroads. The Hewitts met at a laundromat in Charleston in the early 1960s, when Bill was stationed here with the Coast Guard and Laura taught at Garrett Academy. They married less than a year later. Bill finished graduate school and, then a lieutenant commander, accepted a position teaching electrical engineering at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. Laura became active in academy affairs and cared for their three small boys.

Their future plans took a departure when, at age 29, Bill developed vision problems. A doctor at the academy hospital performed a quick test and told Bill he was finished.

"OK," Bill said, hopping up from the examination chair.

"No," the doctor corrected. "I mean, you're finished in the military."

Bill was nearly blind in his right eye.

His glaucoma diagnosis more than four decades ago lends personal significance to the couple's most recent contribution to their community. The Hewitts announced this year that their estate plans include a $1.5 million endowment to the Storm Eye Institute to fund cutting-edge glaucoma research. Their gift comes in the form of a life insurance policy with MUSC Foundation named as the owner and beneficiary. The Hewitts make tax-deductible contributions to fund the premiums on the policy, and within 10 years, their premiums will be paid out.

Storm Eye Institute director Dr. Lucian Del Priore said the gift comes at a time when research universities need extra cash to attract the best physicians in the country.

"This is a particularly promising and simultaneously financially difficult time in biomedical research in our country," Del Priore said. "It's challenging because the reality is, traditional funding sources have not kept pace with the growth in scientific research."

The Hewitts' gift marks the culmination of a 25-year relationship between the couple and MUSC that began with something less conventional than medical history: a pair of chandeliers.

Following that fateful doctor's visit, Bill Hewitt medically retired from the Coast Guard, shook off his childhood dreams of a military career and underwent successful eye surgery. He started a new career in software development and project consulting and he and his family, which now included a young daughter, moved around to major cities on both coasts.

The Hewitts eventually talked about retirement plans.

"We had lived in California, Washington, Connecticut, New York," Laura remembered. "Of all the places where we lived, I didn't want to go back to any of those places. I wanted to go back down South."

She looked into real estate in Charleston and found a home in need of restoration on Orange Street, between Broad and Tradd streets. Within a few months of that passing retirement conversation, the Hewitts moved their life from New York City back to the Holy City in 100-degree July heat.

Local residents came by to see the newcomers painstakingly refurbishing the 1760s-era home, including all 13 fireplaces. One of those visitors, then-MUSC President James B. Edwards, expressed an interest in two chandeliers he wanted for a historic house being restored on the university's campus.

Bill told the stranger, "I'll give you one, and I'll sell you one."

That unusual transaction began a connection between the Hewitts and MUSC. Dr. Edwards invited Bill to join a new president's advisory board but, since Bill still commuted to New York for work, Laura served in his place.

During her time on the board, Laura said she learned a great deal about MUSC.

"The dedication of doctors at MUSC surprised me a lot," she said. So much, in fact, that Bill stopped seeing his ophthalmologist in New York and instead made special 6 a.m. appointments with an MUSC physician before his flights out of town.

Laura went on to serve as a member of the Storm Eye Institute Board for 12 years, including four years as chairwoman. Bill served on the Health Sciences Foundation Board, now called the MUSC Foundation, for more than a decade and spent five years as its chairman. He currently serves on the MUSC Board of Trustees.

Despite their financial contributions over the years, the Hewitts consider their service a greater gift.

"The most important thing you have is time, because it's the only thing that's irreplaceable," Bill said. "Once it's gone, it's gone."

The Hewitts' gift provides money for an endowed chair dedicated to glaucoma studies.

Dr. Craig Crosson, senior associate dean for research at the Storm Eye Institute and himself a glaucoma researcher, said the Hewitts' contribution ensures that MUSC takes a coordinated, sustained approach to understanding the disease.

"If you have glaucoma today, we can slow the progression but we can't cure you," Crosson said. "Based on where glaucoma research is going, we're going to move from palliative care to actually curing the disease."

Both drugs and surgeries have improved over time, Crosson explained, yet doctors still work to preserve a patient's vision. The goal remains controlling glaucoma, not overcoming it -- but that goal could change with research.

"That's why these funds are significant," Crosson said. "It's a wonderful gift that is going to impact quality of life for many people. Can you imagine what greater gift someone can give you than that?"