UT's 'anonymous' benefactor receives top honor from alumni group

By Sharon Jayson
Wednesday, July 16, 2003

University of Texas benefactor Peter O'Donnell Jr. will receive the highest honor bestowed on a nonalumnus by the university's alumni association: the Distinguished Service Award.

UT officials announced the award Tuesday. The honor, created in 1998, has gone to former UT President Peter Flawn and Senior Vice President William Livingston. O'Donnell, 79, of Dallas, will receive his award Oct. 3 during annual ceremonies for distinguished alumni.

"He's been a force for so many years," said Steve Ballantyne, immediate past president of the Texas Exes. "He's done more than just give money. His leadership and advice to the different deans and presidents and to the system is amazing."

O'Donnell never went to UT, but he has become its best-known anonymous donor. His philanthropy totals more than $104 million and has paid for various endowed chairs and institutes. His most visible effort is a six-story, $31.2 million interdisciplinary research center, the Applied Computational Engineering and Sciences Building, the construction of which O'Donnell personally oversaw. All but $5.8 million has been donated to UT under his standard moniker: "anonymous."

O'Donnell did not return calls Tuesday seeking comment.

UT President Larry Faulkner praised the school's benefactor.

"Peter O'Donnell, in my mind, is as constructive a citizen as the state of Texas has. This is a recognition of the enormous contributions he's made not only to the university, but to the health of the state."

O'Donnell graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., with a bachelor's degree in math. He majored in banking and finance at the Wharton Graduate School of Finance in Philadelphia. After graduation, he worked for a small bank before going into real estate, where his investments have made his family foundation's philanthropy possible. The UT System has previously presented him with its highest honor, the Santa Rita Award.

Winners of the Distinguished Alumnus Awards, also to be presented Oct 3. are:

* Hal Box, 73, who for 16 years served as dean of the UT School of Architecture. He now lives in Mexico.

* Peter Coneway, 59, a former UT System regent who in 1975 founded the Houston office of the investment banking firm Goldman Sachs. He previously received the alumni association's Outstanding Young Texas Ex Award.

* Jeffrey Heller, 63, a former All-American and Southwest Conference champion swimmer who is president and chief operating officer at Electronic Data Systems Corp. in Dallas.

* Tom Loeffler, 56, a four-term former congressman from San Antonio and a former UT System regents chairman who last year was named an Outstanding Alumnus of the UT School of Law.

* Carole Keeton Strayhorn, 63, the state comptroller, a former Austin mayor and a former member of the Texas Railroad Commission.

* Judith Zaffirini, 57, a state senator from Laredo who earned her bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from UT.

O'Donnell's wife, Edith, was among UT's Distinguished Alumnus honorees in 1989.

sjayson@statesman.com; 445-3620