The Sound of Music: How This Campus Gift Represents More than the Construction of a New Building

Let's play a word association game. When I say "University of Notre Dame," you say, "One of the nation's preeminent Catholic Universities." Or "an athletic powerhouse." Or "the school with perhaps the coolest mascot in the country."

You probably don't say, "A school with an uncanny ability to net grants earmarked for unique music-related capital projects," and I can't blame you. But the evidence is starting to mount. The school just received a hefty $25 million gift from Helen Schwab and her husband, Charles, in honor of her brother Joe O’Neill for the construction of O’Neill Hall. The structure will be a six-story, 100,000-square-foot building for the Department of Music, the Sacred Music at Notre Dame program and hospitality space, with completion scheduled for August.

Which brings me back to the employment of the word "unique" in the previous paragraph. We obviously see a lot of money flowing into the STEM-crazed higher education space, but gifts earmarked for projects like the construction of a music building are somewhat rare.

It's even rarer for a school to net grants earmarked towards the construction of music-related facilities in quick succession. Last July, the school's marching band and its RecSports program received a $5 million donation from Ohio's Kenn and Pamela Ricci. The money was earmarked for the construction of an outdoor facility that will serve as a rehearsal field for the Band of the Fighting Irish.

As for the most recent gift, Helen and Charles Schwab—that would be the investment magnate—are significant donors to the university and major donors to O’Neill Family Hall, which houses undergraduate men. As for Schwab himself, as of December 2016 is net worth stood at $7.9 billion according to Forbes. The Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, meanwhile, reported assets of $270 million in a recent year and made $13 million in grants. He serves as its chairman; his wife is the president. The foundation, whose primary focus is education, is based in San Francisco. Check out our take on its the Bay Area grantmaking here.

The music hall's new namesake, meanwhile, is a formidable Notre Dame supporter and alumni. A 1967 graduate with a degree in finance, O’Neill earned a master of business administration degree from the University of Michigan a year later and then served in the U.S. Army Special Forces. He is the managing partner of O’Neill Properties Ltd. in Midland, Texas. 

At the end of the day, the gift represents an effort to provide students and faculty with a start-of-the-art music complex, with an eye towards highly technical considerations like acoustics and the actual sound of the music (thereby proving that the title of this post wasn't a tossed-off play on words). To further underscore the point, here's Thomas G. Burish, Charles and Jill Fischer Provost of the University: "Music programs have distinctive space needs—sophisticated acoustics, sound isolation, climate-controlled storage for instruments and so on."

O’Neill Hall will include two 2,200-square-foot halls for rehearsals and concert performances, the library for both the Department of Music and Sacred Music program, a music lab for studio production, a lecture hall, classrooms and seminar rooms, rehearsal rooms, numerous practice rooms of varying sizes, four organ practice rooms and faculty offices.

Again, while such gifts may be rare, they aren't unprecedented. For analysis on similar gifts, look no further than recent developments at the University of Missouri and Princeton.