A Major Benefactor of One Florida School Just Gave Big to Another Florida School

The Wertheim family has been a major benefactor of Florida International University in Miami. Herbert Wertheim was born in Philadelphia in 1939, but moved with his family to South Florida when he was young. Wertheim struggled in school, suffering from dyslexia, and dropped out as a teen. He joined the Navy and found a passion for science and technology. Wertheim later completed his schooling, worked for NASA, and founded Brain Power Incorporated, a leading manufacturer of ophthalmic instruments. Wertheim holds more than 100 patents, including the UV coating used on sunglasses. He also worked as a researcher and lecturer for decades with the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute at the University of Miami.

Given Wertheim's background and incredible story of success, it's easy to see how education would be a strong interest. It's also easy to see how South Florida would be a major focus. Wertheim and his wife Nicole move their philanthropy through the Dr. Herbert and Nicole Wertheim Family Foundation, which was founded  in the late 1970s. Florida International University has been the site of major philanthropy. FIU is home to the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine and the Nicole Wertheim College of Nursing and Health Sciences. Wertheim also served as chairman of the FIU Foundation.

Other gifts by the couple to FIU created the Nicole Wertheim Endowment for Nursing and Health Sciences Education and Research, and the Nicole Wertheim Nursing and Health Sciences Scholarship Endowment. Between 2004 and 2009 alone, the Wertheims gave at least $50 million to FIU. In 2013, another $10 million went to FIU. On the heels of one of the couple's gifts to the university, Wertheim said, “FIU is our hometown university, and as a son of this community, I want to invest in those who are going to stay here and pour their talent and their energy back into this community.”

OK, you get the point.

Well, now comes news of another large grant by the Wertheim family to a Florida school, a $50 million gift to University of Florida School of Engineering. Let me repeat: This latest gift by the Wertheim family is not going to FIU but to University of Florida in Gainesville, some 330 miles away in Central Florida.

What's the story here?

Well, for starters, Wertheim is an alumnus of University of Florida, where he studied electrical engineering. In another big gift to a Florida university I wrote about, an alumni couple, after years of giving in their adopted home of Wisconsin, returned to the Sunshine State for retirement.

Related: Back Home From the Cold: How Deep Roots Shaped a $25 Million Gift to USF

While the homecoming element of the story is missing in Wertheim's case, it's true that alumni loyalty can play a role years later, despite another region and institution having priority for a while. Sometimes, it's simply a question of timing and proximity. Wertheim founded his company in the Miami area, became wealthy over there, and naturally starting giving back to the community. FIU isn't the only South Florida institution that's received funds from the couple, either. Support has also gone to outfits such as Miami Metro Zoo, Baptist South Miami Hospital, and the Norton Museum of Art in Palm Beach.

Still, despite all of this, the couple's gift to University of Florida serves as a good reminder of how alumni ties can play a role much later down the line.  After the huge sums given to FIU over the years, the Wertheims might now want to focus on other areas and regions. In addition, considering Wertheim's earlier struggles with school, his success at University of Florida and since is especially personal.

The Wertheim's $50 million gift, the largest cash gift in UF’s history, is part of a major fundraising initiative that will "pool funds from the university, the state of Florida, and private donors to revolutionize engineering education and research at the UF College of Engineering." The college will be known as the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering.