UT donor a force behind research
‘Mr. Anonymous’ focuses on science, engineering efforts
Two years ago, a donor gave $18 million to the University of Texas to underwrite hiring of faculty members for research that combines the use of computers, math and various scientific disciplines.
Such interdisciplinary research shows growing promise for efforts to refine treatment of cardiovascular disease, stem global warming, improve weather forecasting and address other daunting technological challenges.
The university would have gladly named a building, program or institute after the donor in recognition of the gift. But this donor preferred to remain anonymous. Until now.
Peter O’Donnell Jr., a Dallas investor and philanthropist, told the AmericanStatesman recently that he made the contribution to help the university attract promising scientists and engineers early in their careers and to support graduate and undergraduate researchers.
“Because I saw this as an opportunity to take computational engineering and science to a new level, I made an $18 million challenge grant, which was matched by Tex Moncrief, thereby funding $36 million of the endowment,” O’Donnell said. “The university is raising the bal-
Continued from A ance of $12 million to complete the $48 million endowment.”
In other words, it was a classic O’Donnell play all around, from the strategic thinking regarding the importance of interdisciplinary research to the multidonor flavor.
O’Donnell, 86, is the university’s best-known anonymous donor. He and his wife, Edith, who established the O’Donnell Foundation in 1957, have contributed more than $135 million to UT, placing them among the university’s most generous benefactors.
Dallas oilman John Jackson and his wife, Katherine, and their estate rank No. 1 in giving, with $280 million in mineral lands, cash and other assets.
For the most part, O’Donnell eschews recognition. One exception: He allowed a restaurant in the $32 million Applied Computational Engineering and Sciences Building, which he donated to the university, to be named O’s Cafe, and he permitted its signature hamburger to be dubbed Peter O’s Burger.
His $18 million grant to beef up the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences, which operates out of the ACES Building, was typical of another aspect of his giving: He often gives a portion of the sum needed for a particular project, challenging the university to seek contributions from other donors.
“It gets partners,” said Carolyn Dickson, executive director of the O’Donnell Foundation. “It’s good for the project. It’s good for the beneficiary.”
After O’Donnell committed $18 million, UT President William Powers Jr. and J. Tinsley Oden, who directs the compu- UT’s $32 million Applied Computational Engineering and Sciences Building is among Peter O’Donnell’s donations to the university. tational institute, flew to Fort Worth to meet with Moncrief, an oilman and philanthropist. When Moncrief heard that “Mr. Anonymous” was giving $18 million, he agreed to match it, Oden said.
The university announced Moncrief ’s gift in February 2009, making a brief mention of a previous contribution of an equal amount by an anonymous donor.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of O’Donnell’s donations to UT is the strategy behind them. Back in the early 1980s, he studied data on the state’s agriculture and oil and gas industries — he’s big on data — and concluded that they could not sustain the economy indefinitely.
He decided that UT, his wife’s alma mater, needed more firepower in science and engineering so that the state could realize the more technologically oriented future he envisioned.
Working with then-UT President Peter Flawn, O’Donnell put $8 million on the table. Other donors matched it, and the UT System Board of Regents allocated $16 million from the Permanent University Fund, a higher education endowment seeded with proceeds from university-owned oil lands in West Texas.
The result was 32 faculty chairs, each with a $1 million endowment, in science, engineering and math at a time when public universities were just beginning to pursue private dollars for faculty enhancement.
Those new faculty positions helped spur collaboration between UT and the high-technology sector that was instrumental in launching Austin’s tech boom.
In time, O’Donnell would endow scores of chairs, professorships and graduate fellowships at the university.
Most of his donations to UT have benefited the computational institute, which has evolved into one of the university’s research jewels, with 87 faculty members, $12.2 million in annual research expenditures and a list of scientific advancements ranging from the use of heat to kill cancerous prostate cells to computer modeling of how Earth’s mantle cooled billions of years ago.
O’Donnell’s involvement doesn’t end with the checkwriting. He insists on periodic reports about the institute’s activities.
“We have pleaded with him from time to time to allow us to put his name on the institute,” Oden said. “He has been the mind and soul and spirit behind everything.”
O’Donnell’s philanthropic endeavors have also benefited other UT System campuses, including the UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. He established and continues to support a program that pays cash incentives to high school students, teachers and principals to increase participation in Advanced Placement classes and, by extension, college-going rates.
All told, his foundation doled out $33 million in grants to various educational, civic and arts organizations during the year ending Nov. 30, 2009, according to the organization’s Internal Revenue Service filing.
Recipients ranged from the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts Foundation, which received $2.6 million, to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, which got $12.5 million.
O’Donnell grew up in Highland Park, a wealthy community surrounded by Dallas, and earned a degree in math at the University of the South in Tennessee. He went on for a business degree in banking and finance at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
He worked for a small bank and then tried real estate, only to learn he wasn’t very good at it. He tried securities and struck pay dirt.
O’Donnell is something of a godfather in the state Republican Party, having chaired it for several years in the 1960s. He was a top adviser to Bill Clements during his successful 1978 campaign to become the state’s first GOP governor in more than 100 years, and he has contributed to many Republican candidates in Texas and across the nation.
Larry Faulkner, a former UT president who now runs the Houston Endowment, a philanthropic foundation, considers O’Donnell a “consummate background player” who nonetheless stands as a transformative figure in the state’s history.
“O’Donnell is my candidate for the living Texan with the greatest impact on modern Texas,” Faulkner said. “He built the Republican Party of Texas from zero, essentially, to the point where it won every statewide office. He has focused strongly on improvement of the universities, the schools and moving education into a modern form at a modern level.
“And he has been interested in transformation of the economy and has done all he can to support bringing hightechnology businesses into the state.”
Peter O’Donnell He and his wife have given $135 million to school.