They never graduated from college but fell in love with the University of the Pacific and its leafy campus in north Stockton.
On Thursday, the late Robert and Jeannette Powell’s devotion turned into the largest donation in UOP’s history, a posthumous $125 million contribution from the quietly philanthropic couple from suburban Sacramento.
“This gift will mean the world to University of the Pacific,” UOP President Pamela Eibeck told a crowd of 200 faculty and students gathered in front of the schools’s ornate administration building. “Their legacy will live on ... in helping generations of students.”
The bulk of the bequest will go toward scholarships at a school where undergraduate tuition is $39,290 a year and 80 percent of the students receive financial aid. Eibeck said expanding the school’s scholarships will enable UOP to attract more talented students who otherwise couldn’t afford the school.
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“This will make us a first-rate university,” she said in an interview.
Robert Powell made a fortune as a developer and is responsible for the Pavilions shopping center, Campus Commons and the Gold River community, where he and Jeannette lived. Jeannette, an interior designer, worked alongside him on many of his projects.
The bequest fulfills a pledge made six years ago, when UOP announced that the Powells had agreed to donate at least $100 million after they were dead. Robert Powell died just a few months after the gift was announced, and Jeannette died last December. Since the initial announcement, investment income has ballooned the total to $125 million.
Not only is the donation the largest in UOP’s 162-year history – the previous record was $13 million – it’s among the biggest donations to a private university in the United States in the past few years. It expands UOP’s endowment fund by more than half, to $337 million.
The Powells were major supporters of the arts, donating to The Sacramento Ballet, the philharmonic orchestra and the Crocker Art Museum. But in the last two decades, they became increasingly devoted to UOP, even though neither attended the 6,400-student university. Robert Powell was a high school dropout from the Bay Area whose higher education consisted of some night classes at San Mateo Junior College. His wife didn’t attend college, according to John Donovan, a Rancho Cordova accountant who serves as trustee of the Powells’ estate.
Why the attraction to UOP? Donovan said it grew in part from Robert Powell’s realization that it was becoming harder for young people to follow his path of building a successful career without a college degree.
“You can’t do in 2013 ... what Bob Powell did in 1950,” Donovan said.
The son of an auto mechanic, Powell started out as a drywall installer and eventually started his own construction company in the Sacramento area. One of his first big jobs was building student housing at University of California, Davis.
As his construction and development business flourished, Robert Powell secured a seat on UOP’s Board of Regents in 1989, thanks to a friend who was already serving on the board. Powell left the board in 1993 but never lost touch with the school. He was awarded an honorary law degree in 1996, and Jeannette served as a regent from 1999 until her death.
Years ago, the Powells established a loan program for UOP students; the loans were forgiven for those who earned their degrees, said former UOP President Donald DeRosa, whose close friendship with the Powells cemented the couple’s ties to the school.
“He was very interested in Pacific and became more and more so,” said DeRosa, who retired in 2009. “He had an interest, they both did, in supporting students who had need, particularly middle-income students.”
In 2000, they gave $1.5 million to create a campus art center, named for Jeannette Powell.
But, according to DeRosa, Robert Powell long contemplated making a much bigger contribution. On April 20, 2007, he invited DeRosa to his office in Gold River. There, he announced he and his wife would give the school at least $100 million after their deaths.
“I had tears in my eyes,” DeRosa said from his home in North Carolina. He said he told Powell: “You will change the lives of young people in perpetuity.” Characteristically, the publicity-shy Powells didn’t attend when DeRosa announced the gift at an on-campus press conference two weeks later.
Donovan said the the UOP donation represents “the great majority” of the Powells’ estate. The couple had no children and decided they wanted to concentrate their wealth on one institution, rather than spread it around, and there had been little doubt that UOP would be the beneficiary.
“There really wasn’t any discussion of anywhere else,” Donovan said. Moreover, the couple insisted that the money go toward the actual education of students, because they “did not want their names on any more buildings,” he said.
In 2008, after Robert Powell died, the university received a down payment of sorts: $5 million to create the Powell Scholars program, which includes scholarships and money to help students embark on research projects and study overseas.
Including that 2008 gift, the university is receiving $35 million to support the Powell Scholars program and another $60 million for a matching fund to pay for additional scholarships. Students at UOP’s McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento and the dental school in San Francisco will also be eligible for the scholarships. Another $25 million will go into a matching fund to support academic programs.
“We owe them so much,” UOP senior Sarah Wong, a Powell Scholar from Modesto, told the crowd. “Pacific’s future will be brighter thanks to their generosity.”
The bequest includes works of art from the couple’s collection, valued at $400,000, plus $3 million to maintain the school’s permanent art collection.