Shelby White Loves Gardens But She Loves Giving More

Shelby White Loves Gardens But She Loves Giving More.

Author: Lynn Gape

Recently recognized by The Bahamas National Trust (BNT) as a Conservation Legend, Shelby White is also known for her extraordinary philanthropic accomplishments. She created the Leon Levy Foundation in 2004 from the estate of her late husband, Leon Levy. The Foundation funded the development of the Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve (LLNPP), a world-class botanic garden on Eleuthera in The Bahamas. The LLNPP is Shelby’s tribute to her husband and his love for conservation- specifically the natural environment of the Bahamian island of Eleuthera. 

Shelby’s interests include education, libraries, museums, archaeology, parks, gardens, science, human rights, and the arts and humanities. In 2017, she received the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy, an annual award given to one or more individuals who have dedicated their private wealth to the public good.

Shelby receiving the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy in 2017

Shelby grew up in Brooklyn, New York, in an immigrant household. Her parents’ support for the less fortunate, including refugees from Nazi Germany, made a lasting impression on her as a young girl. She has been a generous supporter to a number of institutions in Brooklyn and the rest of New York City. Along with being a member of the board of the New York Botanical Garden, she has contributed significantly to both Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. The Leon Levy Foundation has also been a key benefactor to the Brooklyn Public Library and the Brooklyn Museum.

In 1983, Ms. White married Leon Levy, renowned Wall Street financier and philanthropist. She and Leon were passionate about the importance of giving, and together the couple became a philanthropic force. They also had a passion for ancient civilizations, which led to their establishment of the Shelby White and Leon Levy Programme for Archaeological Publications at Harvard University, and their sponsorship of the excavations at Ashkelon, Israel. In 2006, a grant from the Leon Levy Foundation created the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) at New York University– a center for advanced scholarly research and graduate education which aims to encourage the study of the economic, religious, political and cultural connections between ancient civilizations. Shelby, who chairs the Friends of the Israel Antiquities Authority, also supported the excavation and conservation of the Lod Mosaic, an extraordinary archaeological find. It will be housed on its original site in the Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Center, opening in 2021.

Left: Shelby White and Leon Levy  Right: Leon participating in an excavation activity 

Shelby and Leon’s love for the arts and humanities have resulted in the creation of many prominent initiatives, including: an archives program to document and make accessible the histories of New York City’s cultural institutions; the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center, City University of New York; and the Shelby White and Leon Levy Travel Grants at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, which enable graduate students to travel the world to study original works of art. The couple also donated the Leon Levy and Shelby White Court to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it is the centerpiece of the museum’s Greek and Roman Galleries.

Shelby is very hands-on with her philanthropy, choosing to participate in actual excavation as part of her support of archaeological studies. She speaks of how she loves the careful and painstaking work of digging at an archaeological site and the excitement of uncovering a piece of history.

Shelby White taking part in an archaeological excavation

The same attention to detail Shelby honed in her excavation activities was evident in every phase of development of the Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve. Dr. Ethan Freid, Preserve Botanist, describes Shelby as a major force in the Preserve’s development. From the selection of the site to the creation of the trails, she has actively participated in developing this jewel of tropical botany. Shelby has walked every trail on the Preserve and personally selected the locations for many important features on the property.

The location of the Education Pavilion was one of the sites Shelby White selected herself

One of Shelby’s desires is for the LLNPP to be a center for fostering a love of Eleuthera’s natural environment, especially within the local community. BNT’s Education Team has developed an Educator’s Resource full of activities that students can enjoy at the Preserve. When sent for Shelby’s review and comment, she and her good friend, Liz Moynihan, responded with their suggestions regarding the activities. During discussions, it became clear the two of them had actually done every activity in the book and had a great time doing it! It is that attention to detail that defines Shelby’s level of interest in the projects she supports.

Shelby White at the Preserve in 2021, celebrating its 10th anniversary

Her visionary creation of the Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve has contributed significantly to biodiversity conservation and botanical knowledge in The Bahamas. In 2019, the LLNPP became the first institution in The Bahamas to be recognized as an accredited Botanical Garden by Botanic Gardens Conservation International ( BGCI) and in 2020 the Preserve was recognized as an Accredited Conservation Practitioner. The Preserve is an important institution for ex situ conservation with an impressive collection of Bahamian endemics, paired with propagation efforts for a number of the more endangered species.

Ethan’s Tower overlooks the 30 acre lush, native botanical garden

The Preserve opened in 2011 and in 2021 is celebrating its 10th Anniversary. Supported by the Leon Levy Foundation, this park promotes education, conservation and research, and is an outstanding addition to the Bahamian national park system. It is the number one visitor attraction on Eleuthera and a community centre for the island. We are sure that Leon, the Preserve’s namesake, is applauding Shelby’s philanthropy in The Bahamas.

To learn more about the 10th Anniversary celebrations visit:

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  • Shelby White is an amazing woman who surrounds herself with extremely competent people. Her generosity to the people of the Bahamas and the conservation mission and message are backed up with her involvement. The internships she supports to educate budding scientists is commendable and shows her vested interest in preserving the natural habitat of The Bahamas. Thank you Mrs Shelby Levy White

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