This day before Thanksgiving, I sit to write about a man I am thankful for. I celebrate the contributions to online knowledge of Memphis-area philanthropist Charles Boone. Now that he has passed away—August 28, 2020, at the age of 85—I feel privileged to be able to share something he asked me to keep private, until after he died.
In particular, Charles was the mysterious benefactor behind WatchKnowLearn and Reading Bear. When I was working for him, he lived alone with his dogs on a nice estate in a big house, two ponds (one stocked), and lots of woods in Lakeland, a distant suburb of Memphis, Tennessee. When I first met him, he was around 71 and already bragging about how he had outlived everyone in his family. Charles was a remarkably open and nice guy, although he could sometimes be a tightwad, as I have found many rich folks are. The first time I met him, he said he’d take me to lunch. I thought we were going to some restaurant, maybe a nice one. He took me to the local Costco and we ate a bunch of free samples. Maybe it was a test. I think I passed, if so. He was very unpretentious that way. He was very easy to like. I remember driving hither and yon, including out to the state capital once to lobby someone, and discussing the projects and much else, besides. I don’t think he really had a mean bone in his body.
Our association began in 2007, when I was still working hard on Citizendium. He said he wanted someone to organize an “American Idol for teachers.” He said he wanted to hire the guy who started Wikipedia. I told him I didn’t have time for another project, but I asked him to help support Citizendium. He agreed to, but asked me to consult a bit for his project. Over the next year, he asked me to do more and more, which is one of the main reasons I was doing less and less on Citizendium throughout 2008. By late 2008 I was working more or less full time developing a new project. He invited me to come live in the Memphis area, but it wasn’t necessary, and my wife and I had already settled in the Columbus area. I ended up worked for him at a distance for something like five years.
The new project wasn’t an American Idol for teachers. I persuaded Charles to let me organize a directory of the best educational videos online, reasoning that there was already plenty of great stuff online, it just needed to be made more findable. It was called WatchKnow—later, under new management and after I started working on Reading Bear, renamed WatchKnowLearn. It launched in 2009 and remained in active development until 2011 or so. It quickly gained tens of thousands of videos in a large directory of videos, in a format that teachers say they found very useful. It was (and is) 100% free of charge to everyone, and ad-free. That’s because Charles paid for it.
In 2010, I showed Charles a video I had made of my toddler son reading. He was amazed and said he wanted me to make a digital version of the program I had used to teach my son to read. So he hired a new CEO for WatchKnowLearn and I switched to start developing Reading Bear, which I did for two years. I began by doing background research, among other things writing this free book. Then I dove into the project, which was hard work, designing the software and working closely with the developers, making the word lists, collecting the pictures and videos (after arranging to get them donated by an early exec of Shutterstock), and then actually producing 50 presentations. Every separate sound of all 1,200 words and corresponding sentences had to be matched, by hand, so that the right part of the words were being highlighted while the audio was heard. Truly it was a labor of love. But I hear that many kids as well as ESL students used it to learn to read. My second son was one of the first beta-testers; he was using it as I was still making it, when he was a baby. Like his big brother, he was reading picture books by age two and chapter books by age three. Anyway, Reading Bear got many good reviews and helped a lot of people learn to read English. Charles paid for that and he rightly took pride in it.
By late 2012, Charles had gotten married, again, he was passing ownership to a third party (who, sadly, haven’t done much with them since; they’re 100% out of my hands). So Charles’ interests took him elsewhere for half a dozen years. Both projects were finished, and Charles wasn’t ready to develop them any further. I moved on to other projects.
Interestingly, it was just last summer, 2020, when we got back in touch for the first time in a while. He said he wanted to get back into developing a new project. Would I be interested in developing that old “American Idol for teachers idea” for him—for real this time? I was consulting at the time, so it was easy for me to say yes (although I have since moved on to full time starting the Knowledge Standards Foundation). We even said, sometime in early August, that we would negotiate a salary and get started very soon. But then I stopped hearing from him. A few weeks passed, I got worried, and I contacted a mutual acquaintance, who told me the bad news. Apparently, Charles had passed away just a couple days after our last call. It warms my heart to know that he was wanting to develop more free educational content projects until the very end.
The “American Idol for teachers” idea, by the way, is a very good one. It would not just be another Khan Academy. We would do a search, probably in the form of an actual competition with cash prizes and an employment contract, for the very best K-12 teachers. Then we would work with the teachers and professional videographers and produce professional videos covering the entire K-12 curriculum, complete with supplementary material like lesson plans and worksheets, and make it all available online for free. The result would be something like TheGreatCoursesPlus.com, but for kids, and absolutely free.
Someone ought to do that project. It always amazes me that so many philanthropic dollars are spent on education, and so few are spent on actual content that students can learn from. What a waste. Listen, education philanthropists—what the world needs are boatloads of high-quality free educational material. That really is of great benefit to the world. There still isn’t enough really good free educational stuff. Yes, even still. Not enough people understand this. Charles understood it, though.
Charles had other philanthropic activities as well. He used to talk about how he bought expensive smart boards (interactive displays for education) for classrooms in poor areas that couldn’t afford them. He had other projects, too. I’m sure he didn’t tell me about all of them.
Charles wasn’t perfect, as he himself admitted early and often. He was a Christian man who cared deeply about improving the lives of poor kids, especially around the very poor Mississippi Delta region. He was unassuming and, for religious and other reasons, asked me not to publicize his name until after he was dead. Since he has passed away, I feel happy to be able to share about his work. RIP, Charles.