$75 Million Bequest From Alumnus Is Georgetown's Biggest-Ever Gift

Robert McDevitt, shown with his wife, Catherine, had a funeral home business and a stake in IBM.
Robert McDevitt, shown with his wife, Catherine, had a funeral home business and a stake in IBM. (Courtesy Of Press & Sun-bulletin)
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By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 11, 2008

The estate of a New York mortician and early investor in the computer giant IBM has bequeathed $75 million to Georgetown University, the institution's largest gift, school officials announced yesterday.

Robert L. McDevitt's estate stipulated that a portion of the money endow faculty positions in disciplines such as theology and others that reflect McDevitt's "deep Catholic faith" and interests in science and technology, Georgetown said in a news release. McDevitt, who owned and operated a funeral home business in Binghamton, N.Y., graduated from Georgetown in 1940 and died in September at age 90.

School officials said the gift, like many university donations that come with conditions, also must support faculty compensation, research and other infrastructure needs meant to raise the school's profile and produce work of "national and international distinction," according to a university statement.

Georgetown officials said they were ecstatic about the donation, given the state of the economy and rapidly declining endowments at many universities. The biggest previous gift to the university was a $30 million donation from Robert E. McDonough to the business school, which bears his name.

Georgetown, whose endowment reached $1 billion for the first time a year ago, announced last month that the fund had dropped almost 10 percent as of Sept. 30 to $964 million.

"This comes at a very opportune time," said Chester Gillis, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. "We're trying to invest in our faculty, to enhance the excellence of the faculty and hire new faculty at the senior level who are already accomplished scholars. This will be a great morale boost here. We're still hiring, but some schools are putting on a freeze."

The gift is smaller than donations of several hundred million dollars made to other elite universities, many around the height of the dot-com boom. Georgetown, considered an elite private school, does not have the financial might of institutions such as Harvard and Stanford, which have multibillion-dollar endowments, and major public universities that have larger alumni bases.

"You don't have the same number of graduates out there as you do from other institutions," said John Walda, president and chief executive of the National Association of College and University Business Officers. "And in some other institutions, students come from families with multi-generational histories of philanthropy."

In the Washington region, many universities have received larger gifts: $160 million to the University of Richmond in 1995; $154 million to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 2001; and $100 million to the University of Virginia last year.

George Washington University announced yesterday that it had received a $1.05 million gift from Kuwait and its emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, to support Middle East studies at its international affairs school.

The timing of the Georgetown gift is fortuitous. The recession has made donors and other philanthropists wary about giving. Many universities are expecting families to rely more on financial aid, which could sap funding for other needs.

"Fundraising and gift-gifting have slowed down in the last couple months, no question about it, to all charitable organizations," said Timothy Seiler, a director at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. "It's certainly fortunate for anyone to receive a gift of this size, particularly now."

Terry Reynolds, chairman of Georgetown's theology department, said he had been hearing "through sources" in the past week or two that a "gift was in the works and that it was sizable." When he learned yesterday that a portion of the McDevitt gift must be spent on disciplines related to theology, he said he was moved.

"I was very pleased, naturally," said Reynolds, who added that he wants to learn more about the gift to determine whether it can be applied to his department. In general, he said, "we'd like more funding for research leaves and more faculty. But it isn't as if we have gaping holes in the department and this money will make us whole."

The $75 million gift, most of which is in IBM stock, might never have existed had it not been for McDevitt's mother, Mary McDevitt, according to Georgetown. Mary McDevitt served as secretary to the president of the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Co., the predecessor to IBM. She worked there from 1895 to 1905 and borrowed $125 to buy company stock.

"Those original shares," the university statement said, "were still part of [Robert McDevitt's] portfolio of IBM stock."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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