S otheby’s is immensely honored this season to be offering a collection of remarkable artworks being sold to benefit the O’Donnell Foundation in Dallas.
Among even the highest echelons of philanthropic achievement over the past century, the tireless work and manifold contributions of Peter and Edith O’Donnell stand as simply exceptional. For more than six decades the O’Donnells were devoted to the advancement of a wide range of higher education causes; scientific, technological, engineering and math innovations; as well as medical research, public health and arts programs. With a visionary ambition to effect change, an exacting attention to detail, and acute insight to maximizing progress, the spirit of their support was unfailingly modest and most of their giving was done anonymously. Nevertheless, the legacy of their extraordinary contributions has been profound, transformative and far-reaching for multiple generations, and to date the Foundation has contributed more than $900 million to a spectrum of extraordinary causes.
Peter O’Donnell was born and raised in Highland Park, near Dallas and studied mathematics at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, before earning a Master of Business Administration from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He first worked in banking and real estate before achieving significant success in the securities industry. Edith Jones was born in Abilene, Texas and graduated from The Hockaday School in Dallas before attaining a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from The University of Texas at Austin. The two met in 1948 and were married in 1952, subsequently going on to raise three daughters.
Having established the O’Donnell Foundation in 1957, the couple devoted themselves to furthering causes in their city, state and, indeed of the nation, that they were deeply passionate about. In the fields of public and higher education, Mr. O’Donnell founded the Advanced Placement Incentive Program, which dramatically increased the number of high school students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds passing college-level exams in math, science, and English. This served as the model for programs in Texas and across the nation. In addition, he established Laying the Foundation, a teacher-training organization for grades six through 12 with the goal of better preparing students to enter the Advanced Placement pipeline. Mr. O’Donnell was also instrumental in creating the National Math + Science Initiative, which has enhanced math and science education programs for high school students. The O’Donnell’s wider support of higher education at The University of Texas was unparalleled and university chairmanships in Computing Systems, Science and Engineering were established in their honor.
Property Sold to Benefit the O'Donnell Foundation
In the field of medicine, the O’Donnell’s gifts transformed UT Southwestern Medical Center into an internationally recognized research and clinical leader through support for new generations of physician-scientists, supporting Nobel Prize-winning research, and recognizing those contributing to its educational and caregiving missions. They provided funds for the Center for Human Nutrition and for the research of Nobel Laureates Dr. Michael Brown and Dr. Joseph Goldstein. The Foundation continues to support their work, as well as fellow Nobel Laureate Dr. Bruce Beutler, and the many members of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine with roots at UT Southwestern. To help ensure financial support for UTSW to train and mentor the next generation of medical scientists, the O’Donnell Foundation created the Endowed Scholars Program in Medical Science and provided a lead gift to help launch UT Southwestern’s Clinical Services Initiative. In addition, the couple supported the establishment of the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute, a comprehensive center dedicated to better understanding the basic molecular workings of the brain and applying those discoveries to the prevention and treatment of brain, spine, nerve, and muscle disorders. In 2022, the O’Donnell Foundation committed $100 million to UT Southwestern Medical Center to endow and support its new School of Public Health. This investment is the largest gift to a School of Public Health at a public university in the U.S. and matches the third largest gift supporting any School of Public Health.
In the arts Mrs. O’Donnell spent much of her effort cultivating the Dallas Museum of Art, where she began as a docent, served as a member and Chair of its Education Committee, and served as a DMA Trustee from 1989. Recently, the Foundation created and endowed the Edith O'Donnell Institute of Art History at UT Dallas with the largest gift ever made to an art history program. A gift to the Dallas Museum of Art in 2013 ensured free general admission and enabled the museum to publish its entire collection online. Furthermore, the O’Donnells developed the plan to endow the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Principal Musician Chairs, provided significant support to The Dallas Opera, and launched Met: Live at the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, as well as supporting the AT&T Performing Arts Center and the Perot Museum of Nature and Science among many others.
In recognition of their dedication, the O’Donnells were honored with numerous accolades. Mr. O’Donnell served as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Trustee of the Cooper Institute, and was a member of the Presidents' Circle of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. In Texas, he served as Commissioner of the Texas National Research Laboratory Commission, as a member of the Texas Select Committee on Higher Education, and as a founding member of The Academy of Medicine, Engineering & Science of Texas. He also served on President Ronald Reagan’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.
Mrs. O’Donnell was appointed to the Texas Commission on the Arts, the original board of the Friends of the Governor’s Mansion of Texas, and the advisory board of The University of Texas College of Fine Arts. She also co-founded Young Audiences of Greater Dallas in 1989 (now Big Thought), recognized today as a national leader in arts education, after school programming, summer learning, juvenile justice, learning systems and social and emotional learning.
The O’Donnell’s determination to elevate arts education was recognized with the Linz Award, one of Dallas’ oldest and most prestigious civic honors. In 2008, they together received an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters from Southern Methodist University for their pivotal roles in advancing the arts and education, and they were presented the College Board’s Lifetime Achievement Award for excellence in education.
Following an extraordinary shared life guided by improving the opportunities and circumstances of so many others, Mrs O’Donnell passed away in November 2020 aged 94 and Mr. O’Donnell passed away in October 2021 at the age of 97. Through their Foundation the transformative work continues, as resoundingly demonstrated by its $100 million gift to UTSW Medical Center just this March: the largest gift ever made to a School of Public Health at a public university in the United States.