Frank Batten, Sr.

Media magnate and entrepreneur Frank Batten, Sr. (1927-2009) made the largest single gift in the history of the University of Virginia in 2007, dedicating $100 million to the creation of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. From its beginning, the newest school to be established at the University in more than 50 years has set out to to groom visionary leaders who will drive the policy process, build coalitions, and translate innovative ideas into action.   

Frank Batten, Sr., chairman and CEO of Landmark Communications, Inc. in Norfolk, Virginia, was a long-time University of Virginia supporter and a graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences.  A forward-thinking philanthropist committed to supporting educational initiatives and serving the public good, Batten wanted his most recent gift to extend beyond business to all facets of civic life.

 Talented public leaders are needed from a range of professional backgrounds. It is critical to get younger people excited about the responsibilities and opportunities of public service in all its manifestations.

Batten saw an urgent need for a new generation of leaders who could affect transformational change. He emphasized leadership as one of the key skills required for success in the field of public policy. “Talented public leaders are needed from a range of professional backgrounds. It is critical to get younger people excited about the responsibilities and opportunities of public service in all its manifestations,” Batten said. “The earlier in their careers that exceptional students begin to think of themselves as future public leaders who can promote a better society, the greater the likelihood they will become such leaders.”

Early years

Batten was born in Norfolk to one of the city’s leading families on his mother’s side. When he was one year old, his father died, and the family moved in with his uncle, Samuel Slover, publisher of Norfolk’s two newspapers, the Virginian-Pilot and the Ledger-Dispatch. Batten was sent to school at Culver Military Academy in Indiana and served in the Merchant Marines just after World War II. Graduating from the University of Virginia in 1950, he went on to earn an MBA from Harvard. During the summers of his student years, Batten interned as a reporter for the Ledger-Dispatch. He became publisher of the Virginian-Pilot and the Ledger-Dispatch in 1954, at age 27, then chairman of Landmark in 1967.

Career

Under Batten’s leadership, Landmark Communications, Inc. grew to become one of the nation’s largest privately held media companies. Its broad holdings in electronic and print media include the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk and the Roanoke Times. Batten was known for his business acumen and is widely remembered for his most innovative business move, the 1982 launch of The Weather Channel.

The crowning glory of Batten’s career is perhaps the best example of his entrepreneurial flair: the 24-hour Weather Channel. Data from his fledgling cable systems showed Batten that viewers were channel-surfing for up-to-date weather forecasts. It took Batten less than a year to put The Weather Channel on the air in 1982, despite the sea of skeptics. An artful strategist, Batten obtained a free-use agreement from the U.S. National Weather Service, located The Weather Channel in Atlanta, Georgia, already home to CNN, and negotiated a per-viewer fee from system operators. From 10 million households at its start to 100 million homes today, The Weather Channel boasts one of the widest reaches in the industry.  

Batten likewise distinguished himself as a civic leader. In 1958, federal courts mandated the racial integration of Norfolk’s schools. In response, Virginia Governor James Lindsay Almond ordered the schools to close, a policy he dubbed “massive resistance.”  Batten fired the editor of the Ledger-Dispatch for supporting Almond and backed Virginian-Pilot editor Lenoir Chambers, who spoke out against segregation in newspaper editorials. Batten organized community leaders to endorse a full-page advertisement calling for the schools to reopen.  Norfolk’s schools reopened in February 1959, setting the community on a new social path. Chambers’ editorials won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize.

Philanthropy

Leadership, good citizenship, and public service were passions that propelled Batten for the rest of his life. His educational philanthropy alone is estimated at $250 million. Batten served on boards and held a variety of other leadership roles of the UVA Darden School Foundation, the College of William and Mary, Hollins University, Culver Educational Foundation, Access College Foundation, Harvard Business School Publishing Company, Norfolk Academy and the Mariners Museum. He presided over the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce in 1961 and chaired the 1964 drive of what is now the United Way. In 1962, Batten became the first rector of Old Dominion College, and under his leadership the campus broke away from the College of William and Mary. Batten guided the school through its first eight years, during which time it achieved university status. He personally funded building projects and raised additional funding for the school until his death. Like his gift to create the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at UVA, his $32 million gift to Old Dominion University in 2003 was the largest in the institution’s history.

By 2007, the year of the Batten School’s founding, Batten was worth some $2.3 billion. He ranked 190th on the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans. The whole of Batten’s business and philanthropic activities were greater than the sum of its parts. Harry Harding, the first dean of the Batten School, described the school’s generous founder as a true inspiration for future generations of students: “[He was] committed to the principle that our graduates should not only contribute solutions to the most challenging issues facing our society in a globalized world, but also become enlightened, ethical and effective participants in public life.”