At The University of Texas at Dallas, the McDermott name and legacy can be found in every corner of campus. Signature buildings that have served students for decades, sprawling reflecting pools and flowering magnolia trees, and unrivaled educational experiences are but a few results that can be attributed to one individual, Margaret Milam McDermott.
Mrs. McDermott, whose philanthropic gifts made historic impacts on the educational and arts institutions of her native city of Dallas, died on May 3, 2018, at the age of 106. As the pre-eminent private benefactor of UT Dallas, she made a sequence of major gifts, starting in 1995 and continuing through this past autumn that profoundly transformed the human and physical dimensions of the University.
In 1952, she married Eugene McDermott, a pioneer in applying seismography to oil exploration. Together with partners Erik Jonsson and Cecil Green, he founded the company that became Texas Instruments. Subsequently, the entrepreneurs created the privately funded research institution the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest, which in 1969 they gave to the state of Texas to become The University of Texas at Dallas. Eugene McDermott, who died in 1973, was a major supporter of education and research, and in addition to his role in the creation of UT Dallas was a major supporter of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which he and his partners posited as the model for their fledgling university.
For the whole of the University’s life — and for half of her 106 years — Mrs. McDermott also devoted herself to helping UT Dallas take its place on the national stage. Her first transformative gift, an endowment of $32 million, was presented to the University in 2000 to establish the Eugene McDermott Scholars Program, along with endowed chairs for the president and provost. The program and chairs were named in honor of Eugene McDermott and the McDermotts’ longtime friend Cecil Green. In developing the details of her gift, she drew upon the advice of her friends and colleagues Ross Perot, Peter O’Donnell and Louis A. Beecherl Jr.
“The success of the new McDermott Scholars Program was the foundation that inspired all of her further transformative support of the University,” said Dr. Hobson Wildenthal, executive vice president at the University. Wildenthal collaborated with Mrs. McDermott in implementing her visions for UT Dallas over the last 26 years.
In 2005, Mrs. McDermott, highly gratified by the success of the scholars program, asked then-Provost Wildenthal what she could do next to further advance the University. He told her that a truly lasting impact could be made by contributing funds to improve the landscape of UT Dallas. (Years earlier, a national publication had characterized the campus appearance as resembling an abandoned Walmart.) She understood and solicited the advice of her friends Ray Nasher and Roger and Carolyn Horchow. These consultations led to the selection of famed landscape architect Peter Walker to design and implement a total transformation of the University’s 500-acre campus. With her final gift of last autumn, the McDermott contributions to the widely acclaimed new UT Dallas campus total more than $50 million.
In 2009, after passage by the Texas Legislature of the Texas Research Incentive Program (TRIP), which provided matching funds for private donations to the University designated for research, Mrs. McDermott made the first major gift to UT Dallas that qualified for TRIP matching. The resulting combined benefit to UT Dallas was more than $14 million. The latest fruits of that gift were celebrated this April 27 with the investiture of 10 early- and mid-career UT Dallas faculty members as Fellows of the Eugene McDermott Professorship.
As her support of UT Dallas increased over the years, and the University’s achievements and stature expanded in concert, Margaret McDermott recalled that her husband had prophesied that history would conclude that UT Dallas had been his most significant philanthropy. She derived tremendous personal gratification from the successes of the McDermott Scholars, and she and they enjoyed their meetings, both while the scholars were students and even more so as they became alumni passionately devoted to their alma mater and to the iconic human being who had transformed their lives. Similarly, the universal enthusiasm of students, faculty and members of the larger community for the landscape creations of Peter Walker also provided her with continuing and intense satisfaction.
“Margaret McDermott was a Texas icon. Her generosity, love of the arts and passion for students changed UT Dallas, UT Southwestern, the UT System and Texas forever.”
— William H. McRaven, former chancellor,
The University of Texas System
In the last several years of her life, feeling ever-greater enthusiasm for what she and her husband had created and nurtured over the years at UT Dallas, she created the Eugene McDermott Graduate Fellows Program in analogy with the McDermott Scholars Program. Her gift of $14 million, matched by $10 million in TRIP funds, will support in perpetuity a leadership cadre of doctoral students at UT Dallas. She also created endowments for the directors of the two McDermott programs and an endowment to honor her longtime friend Dr. Richard Brettell by creating the Richard Brettell Award in the Arts, to be awarded every other year. This award is similar to the Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT. Her last endowment gift of $10 million, designated to support undergraduate research, was made with the condition of naming the UT Dallas Honors College in recognition of Wildenthal’s efforts.
Finally, in support of newly appointed UT Dallas President Richard C. Benson, Mrs. McDermott made a culminating gift of $25 million in 2017 to UT Dallas to support the construction costs of the new engineering and science buildings now under construction and of the planned Wallace Athenaeum.
“I believe that our founders would be proud of how the University that they envisioned has evolved, and for years, Margaret McDermott has been a driving force in fulfilling that vision,” said Benson, who holds the Eugene McDermott Distinguished University Chair of Leadership. “She was the brilliant and benevolent philanthropist who challenged us to continuously reach new heights of success.”
In 2004, The University of Texas System awarded Mrs. McDermott its highest honor, the Santa Rita Award, in recognition of her deep commitment to higher education and the University. Her husband Eugene McDermott received the award in 1969.
“Margaret McDermott was a singularly impressive human being in every dimension: indefatigably energetic and persistent, focused on and dedicated to lofty goals, and immensely elegant and gracious in her dealings with the total spectrum of her multitude of acquaintances,” Wildenthal said. “She clearly took as her mission the continuation of Eugene McDermott’s own dedication to benefiting humanity through research and education, and expanded that vision to include the benefits of great art and music. Everyone who interacted with her could not escape being inspired by her dedication to these goals and by the style and effectiveness with which she pursued them. The only simple word for her is ‘noble’; she was a natural aristocrat, a Dallas and Texas patriot who was simultaneously an engaged and sophisticated citizen of the world.”