In the world of fundraising, it’s called “the ask,” the point at which the supplicant, after explaining the worthiness of his cause, puts his request in concrete terms. He asks for a check. Maybe the loftiest appeal in Dallas’ history was made by Bill Lively—though he refuses to take credit for it.

This was sometime in 2002. The Dallas Center for the Performing Arts needed money for an opera hall. Back then, there were no models, no renderings of that stunning crimson glass drum. Just a need. So Harvey Mitchell, the chairman of the DCPA board, and Bill Lively, its president and CEO, went to see Bill Winspear. The Canadian-born Winspear had made a fortune in manufacturing, and he was an ardent supporter of the Dallas Opera. After weeks of meetings, it was time for the ask.

“From you,” Mitchell said, “we’ve got to get a big gift to kick this thing off. We need $30 million.”

Winspear was aghast. He had in mind a much lower figure. Who knows? Five million? Ten, tops. It was clear that the request had startled him, so they explained why it was necessary. In terms of how much they wanted to raise, $275 million, it was just a start. But they needed a big start, a gift massive enough to draw the others in. It took an hour, but, finally, Winspear came around. He agreed to give $30 million.

Which was when Lively, to Mitchell’s surprise, said, “You know, Bill, the largest private gift in Dallas’ history is $40 million. We could really use $42 million.”
And that, without much exaggeration, was how the Arts District became what it is today. Bill Winspear made history. He died in 2007, before getting a chance to see an opera in the hall that bears his name. But his $42 million gift, then the largest one-time private donation in Dallas’ history, created the momentum that has so far brought in $335 million and changed the landscape of downtown Dallas.

That’s what Lively wants you to know. Winspear deserves the credit, not him. In fact, Lively wasn’t the one who told me this story, and he’d prefer not to see it in print. Humility lifts from Lively like vibrato from a tenor. It is never a solo, always a chorus. And it was learned early, in Oak Cliff.

“In fourth grade, my mother told me I had every reason to be humble,” says Lively, one of four brothers. “I never forgot that. Nothing significant that I have done in my lifetime, have I done by myself. If you have an ego, you fail.” His mom was an English teacher, his father a band director before going to work for a life insurance company after World War II. In a fifth-grade art class, Lively saw a film about the New York Philharmonic. Leonard Bernstein was conducting. Soon after, he joined the school band, playing trumpet.

“I had never heard music like that. Now I think, if I could be so inspired by such a crude representation as a black-and-white school film, imagine what something like the Performing Arts Center can do for children here.”

Lively graduated from SMU in 1965 with a bachelor of arts in music. In 1970, he received a master’s degree in education from the University of North Texas. At age 27, he returned to the place where he first picked up his horn, W.E. Greiner Junior High, to direct the school band.

Ask_2 Lively left the DCPA to head up North Texas’ Super Bowl effort. photography by Tadd Myers

“Those kids were one of the great joys of my life. They could do anything, but they didn’t know it,” he says, smiling. Lively divided the group into low woodwinds, high woodwinds, low brass and high, and rehearsed in sections. They analyzed the music, took it apart, put it together again. “Da da dee da,” he sings, hands pressing the air around him. The march from Patton. “We worked hard and long, and focused. I recorded the piece and sent it to WRR, and they played it on the radio. Every day was a revelation.”

Lively took his passion back to SMU, where he became the director of bands, associate dean of the Meadows School for the Arts, and, ultimately, vice president of development. “I didn’t know why I was asked to do that. I didn’t know where the office was,” he says. “I thought it was crazy, but they wanted someone to reshape the philanthropic culture in a different way, so I turned it into a stewardship. We thanked people as much as we asked them.”

Though analytical and process-driven by nature—“I am strategic when I am putting my socks on, and I know that is not necessary”—it was at SMU that Lively honed a method for rallying people to contribute to a cause. At its core is his own accountability. “Leadership is not a science. It is an art,” he says, neat and trim in a crisp white shirt. He organizes it into four steps: “First, define the project in a compelling way. Second, outline the project with a plan written by many authors. Third, and most critical, appoint a legion of volunteers with credentials, prestige, honor, and money. Fourth, provide a timeline within which people can embrace the plan.”

But the story of Bill Lively is not so much about how he gathers money for worthy projects. It is not simply the process of charting a course and achieving results, checking the box and moving along, though his strategic thinking is legendary. His story is about engaging the basic desire people have to advance great change, to do great things.

“If you approach him with something that inspires him, he will turn around and inspire you to do something that you were absolutely sure that you could never do,” says Frank Risch, chairman of the board of the Dallas Theater Center and former vice president and treasurer of Exxon Mobil Corporation. “Somehow, he makes it look as if it were meant to be.” Risch, who went to Lively with a gift in mind, emerged from a hard-hat tour convinced he needed to increase his donation. “It was just Bill, inspiring my wife and me to a level of commitment we would never have guessed we’d be undertaking. We know we did the right thing, but we’re still wondering, ‘What is it about that guy?’”

So the impact endures beyond the building or the play on the stage. It remains in the hearts and psyches of an appreciative community. And though he will say he “never had a career ladder” or  “was completely unqualified” for the task at hand or should “take no credit” for what he has orchestrated, he will say his triumphs depend upon the prowess of others.

At SMU, the Center for the Performing Arts, and, now, the 2011 Super Bowl Host Committee, where, as the president and CEO, he is spearheading efforts to secure corporate sponsorships, Lively has relied on prominent citizens to approach potential donors. “It is not hard to say no to Bill. But it is harder to say no to the people Bill takes with him,” Lively says. “When you show up with Roger, Troy, Emmitt, and Daryl, they are giving their money to Roger, Troy, Emmitt, and Daryl. I redefine the word ‘superflous.’”

Lively, despite his modesty, is often asked to sprinkle a little stardust on other nonprofit organizations seeking to do their own great work. If he can help, he does. “He genuinely wants to leave the world in a better place,” says Rowland K. Robinson, president of the Baylor Health Care System Foundation, who in January enlisted Lively’s assistance in a philanthropic campaign. “Over the past several months, he has studied a lot about health care. He has a huge heart for his projects.”

Ask_3 THE BIG DIG: Lively, Caren Prothro, and Howard Hallam breaking ground for the arts center. photography courtesy of Bill Lively

He has also devoted time to the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center of Education and Tolerance, and is accepting the organization’s Hope for Humanity honor next month. “When we told him about the award over lunch, he paused, took off his glasses, and wiped his eye with his napkin,” says Risch, who serves on the board. “Then he asked to bring his family to the museum so that they could understand what the honor means. In typical fashion, he made us feel special.”

For the American Prairie Foundation in Bozeman, Montana, which is piecing together fragmented public land in the Northern Great Plains into a 5,000-square-mile wildlife preserve, Lively has transformed a personal love for American history into true work. “Bill is able to explain a project of this scope and articulate it so people understand the purpose of it, why it is meaningful, why it is critically important, and important at this time,” says Sean Gerrity, president of the foundation. “He is a great mentor to us.”

The goal is to return the land to how Lewis and Clark found it in 1805. Lively has read 28 books about the explorers’ expedition to the Pacific Coast. Soon, he will take a flat-bottom boat journey up the Missouri River, camping on the banks at night, seeing the white cliffs, bison, and elk.

When he was a kid, Lively’s dad took him hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park. Since then, he has trekked all over the world. A photograph of the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, cast in early morning sunlight, hangs on the wall behind his desk. About 10 years ago, at 55, he climbed 19,340 feet to the top. It was 5 degrees below zero. “It was painful, but it was the greatest adventure, ethereal, strange, exhilarating. I knew I wouldn’t be first, but I’d get there,” he says. “I didn’t travel 6,000 miles to Tanzania to fail.”

This past summer, Lively took three of his 10 grandchildren back to Colorado, to hike and climb, to navigate their way through rocky terrain and spruce fir forests, to shoot for Flattop Mountain, 12,324 feet up. “We’ll talk about ecosystems and wildlife,” he said before leaving, “about why trees stop growing, about why the bark is twisted on the ponderosa, why the leaves grow only on one side. We’ll do what my dad did for me.”

The first day, they took an old fire trail seldom used by civilized man to a lake deep in Glacier Gorge, hiking a little more than 6 miles. “The little guys, whose ages range from 13 to 9, did great.  We made the lake, drank our water, ate energy bars, and came down. Later that night, the youngest of the boys responded to the day’s adventure by asking, ‘Granddaddy, do you think we could climb a smaller mountain tomorrow?’”

Lively decided to postpone the climb up Hallett until “legs are longer and lungs are bigger.” The summit will wait. But knowing Lively, not for too long.

Pamela Gwyn Kripke contributes to the New York Times. She runs the blog likeasinglemom.wordpress.com. Write to [email protected].