Big Texas Funder Went to UT-Austin, But Shows Her Love for Whole UT System

Edith Jones O'Donnell and her husband Peter O'Donnell have been a bedrock of Texas philanthropy for going on 60 years. The O'Donnell Family Foundation has been in operation since 1956—yes, that's 13 years prior to Apollo—and has donated more than $600 million to various causes, primarily in Texas, typically targeting science research and education. Now these two like to keep a low profile, and much of their money is doled out anonymously.

Why then should we even call Edith O'Donnell's latest gift of $17 million to develop an art institute at UT-Dallas a splash? After all, what's another $17 million compared to years of philanthropic dedication?

Let's look at the big picture for a moment and talk Texas history—no, not the Alamo. In the 1950s when the O'Donnell Family Foundation was first set up by Peter O'Donnell, who made his money in securities, money was pumped into the organzation from Edith's inheritance. (At the end of the 2012, the assets in the O'Donnell Foundation were valued at around $73.4 million.) Edith O'Donnell, a graduate of the University of Texas system, Austin to be specific, immediately took a leadership role in improving Texas' education system. Philanthropy always has a civic component, but for the O'Donnells, it seems to be fueled by something more. Call it an attempt to shatter Texas stereotypes or something like that. 

In the 1980s and 1990s, for instance, when Texas lagged behind in various high school to college transition metrics, the foundation turned its attention to bolstering AP programs, college-level courses that prepare high school students for their critical first years as undergraduates. (See: O’Donnell Foundation: Grants for K-12 Education)

More recently, Edith and her husband's philanthropy has turned toward science and STEM education. Each year they give out an eponymous $25,000 award to an interdiscplinary science non-profit called The Academy of Medicine, Engineering & Science of Texas (TAMEST) to the state's top achievers. All of Texas' 10 current nobel laureates are members of TAMEST. The foundation also just gifted $9.3 million to UT-Austin and its Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences, supporting student fellowships, instruction and faculty recruitment.

It's no coincidence that over the last five years Austin has emerged as a magnet for young, bright college students and graduates, and as a hub for startup and other STEM-fueled businesses. Edith O'Donnell is at the center of the city's renaissance with her giving not only in the science sphere, but also to the arts.

Edith recently declared that "there is a natural affinity between science and the arts" and her latest gifting track record supports this. She's already served as a Trustee of the Dallas Museum of Art and as co-founder of Young Audiences (currently called Big Thought), promoting arts education and music theory in Dallas-area schools.

The fusion of arts and science that takes place at the Austin-based annual convention South By Southwest (SXSW) typifies Edith's words.

The gift for UT-Dallas will fund the director's position at the Edith O'Donnell Institute of Art History as well as support graduate research fellowships, four distinguished chairs, and an endowed research and program fund.