A $128 million gift of gratitude

Making philanthropic history: one woman donates millions to her alma mater, a Quaker high school in Pa.

The news reached a few students at the George School last week in an e-mail carrying the subject line "You are kidding!?"

But no one was. The e-mail went on to say that Barbara Dodd Anderson, a 75-year-old graduate living modestly in Fresno, Calif., had given the small Quaker school $128 million, believed to be the largest single gift ever made to a US secondary school.

Few even knew of her wealth before the former kindergarten teacher made philanthropic history.

Mrs. Dodd Anderson says she was simply paying a debt of gratitude to the school she attended from 1946 to 1950.

"I went there under a situation in which my mother was ill," she said in a telephone interview. "I'm paying back the way I was treated by them. Everybody was very kind and helpful."

Mrs. Dodd Anderson, a Presbyterian, says she was pleased to be giving to "very honest, straightforward, decent, friendly people" who had looked after her in a time of need.

The huge sum stunned this coeducational boarding and day school, whose normally tranquil campus 30 miles northeast of Philadelphia has been awash in television cameras, balloons, and ice-cream parties since the word got out.

"Pride, that's my instant reaction," says Nancy Starmer, the school's head. "It just makes me very proud." Ms. Starmer insists that the windfall, to be paid from a trust in installments over 20 years, will not divert the school from its Quaker-based values.

The gift, almost double the school's existing $77 million endowment, will initially be used to bolster student financial aid, raise faculty salaries, and pay for initiatives to make the campus more "environmentally sustainable."

Jovial memories of her school days also appear to have influenced the alumna, who has made several contributions to the school over the years, including a $5 million donation last year for a new library.

She easily recalls such pranks as placing alarm clocks beneath the stage ahead of school meetings and flicking lumps of butter at the cafeteria ceiling with her napkin.

"Oh, I wish I was back in biology with John Carson. I had a crush on him," she adds with a hearty laugh.

Ultimately, it was her belief that "the country needs intelligent young people" that persuaded Dodd Anderson to part with such a large sum – a decision, she says, that she thought long and hard about:

"There was a time when I wasn't absolutely sure this was something I should do."

Dodd Anderson owes her wealth to another well-known philanthropist: legendary financier Warren Buffett, who in the 1950s became a student of her economist father, David Dodd.

Mr. Buffett, who had been rejected by Harvard Business School and was looking for a graduate school that would take him, said in an interview that he penned a note to the Columbia University professor, who co-wrote the renowned investment text "Security Analysis" with colleague Benjamin Graham in 1934.

"I wrote to him and said, 'I thought you guys were dead ... now I see in the catalogue that you teach. I'd very much like to come there,' " Buffett said Wednesday from his office in Omaha, where he keeps a photograph of Mr. Dodd and dozens of his letters.

"He wrote me back a nice letter and basically admitted me to the university graduate school," Buffett says.

The two forged a close relationship – "He was like a father to me," Buffett says – and some years later Dodd invested in the partnership Buffett used to take over a languishing New England textile firm, Berkshire Hathaway. He placed the shares in his daughter's name, and the company grew into the holding company that now has assets of more than $250 billion, enriching Dodd Anderson in the process.

Anne Storch, George School's director of development, had been in discussions with Dodd Anderson for the past 14 months. She says she first had an "inkling" of the scale of the planned gift in early summer.

"It was overwhelming," she says of the moment she learned the donation would exceed $100 million. "What do you say to somebody? How do you tell them how grateful you are?"

Until now, most of the school's annual budget has come from tuition fees – $37,500 a year for boarding students and $27,750 for day students. Though the school has never faced financial hardship, Ms. Starmer says it has faced concerns over the rising costs typical of private schools. Before Dodd Anderson's gift, the George School's endowment was considerably less than those of many of its peer schools. It was forced to borrow $15.7 million in 2001 to pay for needed building renovations.

Buffett, who remains friends with Dodd Anderson, said he thought her gift was "terrific."

"People like Barbara have never lived an ostentatious life. They just let those shares sit in the safe-deposit box for decades," he said. "There's probably a lot of people who know a lot more rich people than I do. But I know more rich people that the world doesn't know are rich. These people are not seeking fame or notoriety or anything like that. They're just living very quietly, and their neighbors probably don't have the faintest idea how rich they are until they give some money."

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