When Carol Ware was 7, she yearned for a pony. Although her parents were rich, they insisted that she work for it.

And so, for the next three years, Carol earned money by cultivating the family vegetable garden and mucking out stalls, and breaking, grooming and exercising ponies at a nearby farm.

Hard work and frugality were family traditions. Carol had only three pairs of shoes, one for Sunday dress-up, the other two for school, which she wore on alternate days so they would last longer.

Her grandfather John Haines Ware Jr., a serial entrepreneur, made his first million by age 36. He slept only four hours a night. He never graduated from high school, but he saw the potential of electricity and aluminum and the eternal need for potable water. At one point, his business empire comprised 125 companies.

"I will never be poor again," he vowed.

He succeeded in that pledge - but also never forgot what being poor was like. Hence, another family tradition: philanthropy. When Carol was growing up, the Ware clan would gather at the Woods, her grandparents' mansion near Oxford, for Sunday dinner. Her grandmother, an excellent chef, prepared a feast. Afterward, family members would distribute leftovers to the infirm, the lonely, the destitute.

"From an early age, we were taught how fortunate we were to have so much," says Carol, who is known today by her married name, Carol Ware Gates. "We were therefore compelled to help take care of others."

Through several foundations, the first formed in 1945, the Ware family has been generous. Gates estimates that over the years, Ware family foundations have made grants and contributions that exceed $100 million and may approach $200 million.

Gates, 59, a former nurse, has made philanthropy her second career. In 1994, she and several others helped found the Chester County Community Foundation as a way of harnessing the generosity of civic-minded donors of moderate wealth, encouraging legacy giving, and focusing on local needs and improvements in the quality of life.

Under the foundation's umbrella are 275 small family foundations and nonprofit endowments. An emerita member of the foundation's board, Gates serves as an adviser and mentor, and has helped the foundation double its endowment to $2.6 million.

"She's a smart giver who is not only benevolent but also strategic," says Karen Simmons, the foundation's president and chief executive officer. "She's a strong businesswoman with a keen sense of how to make people and organizations work together well. She is tireless and quietly tenacious in overcoming all kinds of challenges, and she has remembered her roots, carrying forth her family's love and passion for Chester County."

In October, the foundation gave Gates its Jordan Award for her lifelong philanthropy. Gates was honored also with the Alumni Award of Merit from the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her degree in nursing, serves on the nursing school's board of overseers, and established a chair in gerontology in honor of her mother, Marian.

She made her first donation to the nursing school in 1972, when she was still a student. The $200 gift paid to wax the floor.

In 2004, when the Ware family's Oxford Foundation was divided, Gates used her share to create the 1675 Foundation, which commemorates the year that her ancestor Joseph Ware, an indentured servant from Wales, settled in South Jersey. Gates is joined on the foundation's board by her three grown children, in whom she has worked to cultivate the family traits of diligence, frugality and generosity.

"They're all thrifty and they all have a strong work ethic," Gates says.

The foundation has channeled its resources to historic and cultural projects, environmental causes and health and human services. Among the beneficiaries: the ChesPenn Family Health Center in Coatesville, which provides medical care regardless of ability to pay, and SAVE, an organization devoted to balancing transportation needs and the rural character of southern Chester County, especially along the Route 41 corridor.

In considering which groups to fund, Gates seeks opportunities to be a catalyst, to provide the missing piece of funding that might qualify an organization for a larger grant.

"We can't give as much as a Pew or Rockefeller, so we look for ways to leverage our gifts," Gates says.

Gates, who is divorced, lives in a restored and expanded 18th-century fieldstone farmhouse on a 148-acre estate surrounded by Amish farms in Christiana, Lancaster County, close to the Chester County border.

She was not always so flush. When her former husband was in law school, she worked as a nurse in Cleveland. While engaged in intellectually exciting clinical research, she also ministered to patients and emptied her share of bedpans. Her husband rode to classes on a bicycle. For a time, the couple bought groceries with food stamps.

"I've lived without a lot of money," Gates says. "So I may have a better appreciation of what it's like to be in need."

Her pleasures are modest: reading mysteries; staying abreast of medical research and advances in nursing; riding Frankie, her 23-year-old Thoroughbred/Appaloosa mix who is a granddaughter of Secretariat.

She is not the sort who feels compelled to pack her closets with fancy clothes from Saks or Neiman Marcus. Her attitude toward money: "We could do more with less." She summarizes her philosophy of philanthropy in a sentence: "One's life should be remembered not by one's duration but by one's donation."

She gives because it makes her feel good, she says. Fostering the welfare of the community is empowering:

"There is nothing like the feeling when a group of us set out to work on a project."

Contact staff writer Art Carey at 610-696-3249 or acarey@phillynews.com.