Sara Miller McCune downplays the summing up: hugely successful publishing mogul, supreme business strategist, major player in philanthropy, prodigiously intellectual thinker. She scoffs, offhandedly remarking there are many such in town. Right! But few would accept an award from a certain newspaper, rising to the podium to declare a desire to own that infamous paper by the following year. The scandalized emcee asked her backstage if she understood she’d been rude and impertinent. “Of course,” she replied. “And you’ll be the first person I’ll fire.” It’s become part of Santa Barbara legend. Not that it could diminish the aura of her enormous gift to The Granada, or the Sage Center for the Study of the Mind at UCSB, named after her publishing house, or the pledge for the new Media Arts Building at SBCC, etc, etc. It simply adds to her mystique.
The magazines in her office reveal everything from Fast Company to The Economist, The Africa Report, Wired, and 805 Living stacked neatly. The paintings are good, notably a couple of Hank Pitchers. An adorable little white dog trots in ahead of her, accompanies her everywhere. Her taste in bedside reading runs to mysteries, she admits, but for business she’s extensively informed about what’s current. Asked if all that erudition puts people off, she says she just hangs with smart people. The niche of Sage Publications is primarily academic journals and textbooks — huge. Monumentally profitable, it spawned McCune Foundation. She also founded another non-profit, The Miller McCune Center for Research, Media, & Public Policy; it recently launched a magazine in print and online, Miller McCune, describing actual and potential solutions to society’s problems, based on research made accessible to intelligent non-experts. It’s different than unloading opinions and theory; research is expensive. But that’s where public policy needs to find its way, she feels, and Sara’s been planning this venture for years. It’s a bold move for a woman who’s got nothing to prove to anyone.
She began Sage Publications at just 23, funded with small savings and half the proceeds from a used air conditioner, from her former boss at Macillan and mentor, George McCune, whom she later married. She emphatically says that if she’d wanted to write, she would have written. If she’d wanted to stay in England where she worked, she’d still be there. But her first job after college was in publishing, and she fell in love with the business. Her one-room office at Sage Publications was in New York at the edge of the toy district. Her first publication, Urban Affairs Quarterly, was founded by her former political science professor, a woman still on the board of the McCune Foundation today. Sara acquired distressed publications that were in debt, became skilled launching new titles, as well as at mergers and acquisitions. Today SAGE has over 800 employees and is headquartered in Thousand Oaks with offices in London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington, D.C.
Sara was widowed in 1990, and moved to Santa Barbara in 1993. She’s at home here, or in London, New Delhi or New York. Oprah’s not the only woman to sponsor a school for girls in Africa. Sara’s involved in so many philanthropic endeavors, her foundations employ full staffs. A long-standing tradition of tzdekah in her family, that lovely Jewish custom of dropping coins into a metal box for charity, has blossomed into a massive enterprise of its own. The woman just doesn’t think small!