Peter O’Donnell Jr., who long ago became one of Texas’ leading philanthropists by spearheading what the University of Texas chancellor called “moon-shot advancements in math, science, computing and the arts,” died Sunday. He was 97.
In 1952, the Dallas native and World War II veteran married Edith O’Donnell, who remained his partner for almost 70 years. Together, they pursued decades of philanthropy via their shared mission, the O’Donnell Foundation. Edith O’Donnell died in November at 94.
The couple launched the foundation in 1957, and for years, most of their gifts — which totaled $780 million, according to Peter O’Donnell’s published memoir — were anonymous.
“It was not until recently that they liked their names on anything,” fellow philanthropist Margot Perot, the widow of Ross Perot Sr., said after Edith O’Donnell’s passing. “They had a wonderful marriage and were a great team. They were so close. They did everything together. They gave in so many quiet ways and were supremely generous.”
Initially, the O’Donnell foundation focused on primary areas: Math, science, and engineering education; medicine, arts, and music education; and improving K-12 education by improving the K-12 teacher corps.
The foundation once launched a challenge grant that created 32 One Million Dollar Chairs in science and engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, where O’Donnell and his wife helped create the highly regarded Oden Institute for Computational Engineering & Sciences at UT Austin.
James B. Milliken, the chancellor of the UT system, issued a statement Tuesday, praising O’Donnell and his wife for their philanthropy.
“It is difficult, impossible perhaps, to calculate the impact the O’Donnells had. Their gifts endowed hundreds of chairs, professorships, and fellowships across the UT System and led to the construction of state-of-the-art facilities for the research and teaching that will remain central to the growth and prosperity of Texas for generations to come.
“Far more than donations, Peter challenged others to step up and set far-sighted priorities. His good works may never be repeated, but his vision and leadership can be emulated. I know that I will look to his example of transformational actions and investment. His influence touched every corner of this state, changing it for the better. That is the core of our mission of service, and his memory will serve as a beacon for all of us.”
Milliken called O’Donnell “perhaps the most influential Texan of his generation.”
O’Donnell graduated from Highland Park High School, after which he received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. He obtained a master’s degree in business from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He went on to become a highly successful investor, thriving in the Dallas brokerage business, first with a firm, then on his own.
On Tuesday, O’Donnell also drew praise from UT Southwestern Medical Center, where officials credit him and his wife for having contributed “more than $300 million” by “supporting some of the most innovative and impactful programs at the Medical Center.”
“Excellence was a watchword for Mr. O’Donnell in everything he did and touched. He was a giant of our institution and a quiet driving force in advancing medical science,” said Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky, the president of UT Southwestern.
O’Donnell remained chairman of the O’Donnell Foundation until April 2016, by which time he and his wife had distinguished themselves for developing and funding model programs, devoted largely to education, research, and clinical care.
Early in his career, however, he turned his attention to politics. In the early 1950s, O’Donnell helped elect Republican Congressman Bruce Alger, who became a focal point of controversy before and after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963.
When then-vice-presidential candidate Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, appeared in downtown Dallas during the 1960 presidential campaign, Alger led a group of demonstrators that accosted the Johnsons as they attempted to walk from the Baker Hotel to the Adolphus Hotel across the street. After the assassination, which caused Dallas to be branded the “city of hate,” Alger lost his seat to Democrat Earle Cabell, the Dallas mayor who ran against him. J. Erik Jonsson then succeeded Cabell as the city’s mayor.
O’Donnell was more directly involved in the campaigns of Republican Sen. John Tower; William P. Clements, Texas’ first GOP governor in more than a century; and President George H.W. Bush, who became one of his closest friends.
William Solomon, who remains chairman, president, and CEO of the O’Donnell Foundation, said O’Donnell “played a key role” in the campaigns of Tower, Clements, and George H.W. Bush.
O’Donnell first became interested in politics, Solomon said, in an effort to steer Texas toward becoming a two-party state, “which Peter was instrumental in doing. Peter was a conservative and for years a committed Republican. But he was not a right-winger. I think he felt to some degree that the Republican party has drifted away from some of the core principles that were particularly important to him.”
But when it comes to legacy, O’Donnell will be remembered, said James R. Huffines, former chairman of the board of regents of the UT system, and current chairman of the Southwestern Medical Foundation, as “a rare visionary who dedicated his life to making sure Texas became a world leader in research and excellence in education. His incredible and unprecedented philanthropy will have a lasting legacy for many generations of future Texans.” Huffines called O’Donnell “the most generous contributor in the history of the UT system of schools.”
O’Donnell is survived by three daughters, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. The family says, “A private service will be held at a later date,” adding: “If desired, donations may be made to the Peter O’Donnell, Jr. Brain Institute at UT Southwestern Medical Center or to a charity of your choice.”