UT donor a force be­hind re­search

‘Mr. Anony­mous’ fo­cuses on sci­ence, en­gi­neer­ing ef­forts

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Ralph K.M. Hau­r­witz

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.

Thao Nguyen

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