Margaret Milam McDermott, whose philanthropic gifts made historic impacts on the educational and arts institutions of her native city of Dallas, has died at the age of 106. As the pre-eminent private benefactor of The University of Texas at Dallas, she made a sequence of major gifts to the University, starting in 1995 and continuing through this past autumn, that have profoundly transformed the human and physical dimensions of UT Dallas.
Margaret Milam was born on February 18, 1912. She grew up in Munger Place, now a historic district of Dallas, and graduated from Highland Park High School in 1929. After her college years, she spent five years as the society editor of The Dallas Morning News, describing the experience in her 2012 memoir Reflections as “equal to a PhD in living and learning.” In 1943, she joined the American Red Cross, serving in India at the air base from which American pilots flew supplies “over the hump” into China. She remained with the Red Cross after the end of World War II, spending three years in Germany and one in Japan, where the devastations left by the war made profound impressions on her.
She married Eugene McDermott and the couple made their home in Highland Park. McDermott, who was a pioneer in applying seismography to oil exploration, founded, together with partners Erik Jonsson and Cecil Green, the company that became Texas Instruments. Subsequently, these three partners also created a 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 MIT, which he and his partners posited as the model for their fledgling university.
During their marriage, the McDermotts created a significant collection of French Impressionist art, a joint enterprise that Margaret McDermott has described eloquently in her memoir. Over the 45 years since Eugene McDermott’s death, Margaret carried on and expanded, through the McDermott Foundation, now headed by daughter Mary McDermott Cook, and through personal gifts, the philanthropic leadership roles that she and Eugene had initiated. Some of the primary local beneficiaries of McDermott support have been the Dallas Museum of Art, the Dallas Symphony, the Dallas Opera, The Hockaday and St. Mark’s schools, and the UT Southwestern Medical Center. On a broader scale, the McDermott philanthropy has encompassed arts and educational organizations across the U.S. and internationally.
Margaret McDermott’s first transformative gift to UT Dallas, in 2000, established the Eugene McDermott Scholars Program with an endowment of $32 million, along with endowed chairs for the president and provost, named in honor of Eugene McDermott and the McDermott’s longtime close friend, Cecil Green. In developing the details of her gift, she drew upon the advice of her longtime friends and colleagues Ross Perot, Peter O’Donnell, and Louis Beecherl.
Five years later, in 2005, highly gratified by the early success of the McDermott Scholars Program, Mrs. McDermott asked Provost Hobson Wildenthal what she could do next to further advance the University. He told her that a truly transformative impact could be made by contributing funds to improve the existing landscape of UT Dallas. (Years earlier, a national publication had characterized the campus appearance as resembling an abandoned warehouse.) She understood Wildenthal’s message, and solicited the advice of her friends Ray Nasher and Roger and Carolyn Horchow. This led to the selection of famed 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 have totaled 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, she made the first major gift to UT Dallas that qualified for TRIP matching, with the resulting combined benefit to UT Dallas amounting to 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 leaders as Fellow, Eugene McDermott Professor.
As her support of UT Dallas grew over the years, and the University’s achievements and stature grew in concert, Margaret McDermott recalled with satisfaction 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 her McDermott Scholars, and she and they enjoyed their many meetings together, 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 helped transform 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 intense satisfaction.
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 with $10 million of 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 professor Rick Brettell by way of the Brettell Award in the Arts, to be awarded every other year, similar to the McDermott Prize at MIT. Her last endowment gift, of $10 million, designated to support undergraduate research, was made with the condition that the UT Dallas Honors College be named in recognition of longtime UT Dallas Provost Hobson Wildenthal.
Finally, in support of newly appointed UT Dallas President Richard Benson, Mrs. McDermott made a culminating gift of $25 million to UT Dallas to support the construction costs of the new engineering and science buildings now under construction and of the planned Wallace Athenaeum. In all, since 1990, the McDermott gifts to UT Dallas add up to more than $154 million.
President Benson recognized Mrs. McDermott’s unmatched role in shaping UT Dallas into the institution it is today.
“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.”
Executive Vice President Hobson Wildenthal collaborated with Mrs. McDermott in implementing her visions for UT Dallas over these last 26 years. Wildenthal, in reflecting about that long relationship, remarks “I first remember meeting Mrs. McDermott at the dedication of the Cecil and Ida Green Center in the summer of 1992, soon after my arrival in Dallas. I had the good fortune that she knew my name by virtue of her friendships with my brother Kern and with my first cousin, Carolyn Kellam Curtis, of Austin. As was universally the case with her, she was supremely gracious and friendly, but it appeared that she no longer was deeply involved in the affairs of the University that her husband had created.”
“Over the 1990s we focused at UT Dallas on recruiting ever stronger freshman classes, and I took care to keep her informed of our growing success. After several years, I submitted proposals for funding of freshman scholarships to the McDermott Foundation, and received positive responses, with gifts that were at the time very important. Then, in the spring of 2000, she called and said that she wanted to do something of major significance for UT Dallas and wanted my advice on what it should be. I met her at her ranch on a very brisk, sunny and windy, Saturday morning and we went for one of the hikes across her pastures that she so treasured. I told her that my vision was a McDermott Scholars Program at UT Dallas modeled on the Morehead Scholars Program at the University of North Carolina, and that I had a package of material for her describing that program. She replied, ‘I don’t need it, I know all about the Morehead Program.’ The success of the new McDermott Scholars Program was the foundation that inspired all of her further transformative support of the University.”
Wildenthal continues, “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. 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.”