Out of the Blue: Here's How a Nice Gift Landed on a Catholic College's Doorstep

Kevin O'Kane is a retired professor who taught computer science at University of Northern Iowa, as well as teaching at state universities in Alabama, Tennessee, and Ohio. He attended Boston College as an undergraduate and then went to Pennsylvania State University, where he earned a doctorate in computer science in 1972.

O'Kane recently gave $1.3 million to support scholarships for students in computer science, chemistry, and physics. Given O'Kane's background, supporting STEM students makes sense. But if you're imagining that O'Kane's funds went to one of the universities where he taught you'd be wrong. You'd also be wrong if you guessed that O'Kane's alma maters, Boston College and Penn State, received his money. No, rather, Providence College in Rhode Island was named the sole beneficiary of O'Kane's retirement plan, valued at $1.3 million. Providence is a school where O'Kane never taught or even was a student.

Wait, what?

Before we move on, I should mention that we've been writing about college and university professors as donors for a while now. One case I wrote about last year involved a longtime Villanova professor who, along with his family, gave back to his school. I've also written about an endowed chair created by a former student turned faculty member. Both of these stories involved professors who were on the ground at their school for years and were deeply familiar with it.

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Now let's go back to the case of Kevin O'Kane, who can't say he taught at or was a student at Providence College at all. What's the story here?

Well, for starters, when O'Kane retired in 2013, he moved back to his family home in Hyannis, Massachusetts, which isn't too far from Providence. As Kane puts it, he started thinking deeply about what he wanted to do with his retirement account. He was single with no children, and deceased parents: “After all these years teaching and not spending anything — you don’t spend much money in Iowa in the winter, believe me — the question was, ‘Who I am going to give this to?"

Kane initially considered giving funds to the Catholic church. He also considered Catholic high schools and colleges in New England. He combed through websites, reviewed governance plans and evaluated how these institutions were fulfilling their missions. Ultimately, Providence College caught his attention, particularly because it was an undergraduate school that taught computer science. O'Kane visited Providence College in the fall of last year and as he puts it: “The visit impressed me a great deal. I saw the crucifix everywhere. There was never a place I went where I wasn’t aware that I was on a Catholic campus."

O'Kane reached out to the Office of Institutional Advancement, asked how to endow a scholarship, and the rest is history.

It's also worth noting that O'Kane does have some personal connections to Providence College. His father was a student at the college before transferring to Georgetown, and his late uncle studied at the college before going to law school. Still, it's worth repeating: O'Kane had never even been on Providence College's campus until the fall of 2014. Clearly, Providence College's mission was in line with O'Kane's beliefs and interests.

Recently retired donors are often particularly reflective and seeking institutions to leave their legacy. As we've seen time and again, this often involves institutions that donors have been tied to for decades. Other times, as this interesting story proves, it comes down to an institution and a donor simply being on the same wavelength. O'Kane, despite seemingly more personal ties elsewhere, really seemed unsure of where to send his money until he stumbled upon Providence.

As college president Rev. Brian J. Shanley puts it, O'Kane has "identified and eloquently described the unique characteristics of the Providence College experience, rooted in the principles and ideals that align so nicely with his own, and his gift will have a meaningful, lasting impact on the College and its students. We are grateful beyond words.”