13 years ago
Chad Eggspuehler

The UT System recently bestowed its highest honor, the Santa Rita Award, upon UTD philanthropist Margaret McDermott, making her the fourth such recipient in UTD history.

Named after the oil well that funded the growth of the University of Texas, the Santa Rita Award is presented at the discretion of the UT System Board of Regents. The oil well’s name Santa Rita derives from the patron saint of the impossible, so the presentation of the award has a connotation of recognizing one who has overcome the impossible.

“Essentially, the three founders received the Santa Rita Award for giving a university to the UT System,” said Charles Leonard, director of Eugene McDermott Scholars Program. “It was fitting that Mrs. McDermott would be next to receive it, considering she’s been the most interesting and involved benefactor of the (UTD) in recent years. It’s a tremendous recognition by the UT System of one of our legendary icons.”

The most recent impetus to this honor comes from McDermott’s donation of $32 million in 2000 for the establishment of the Eugene McDermott Scholars Program, which she bequeathed in honor of her late husband, Leonard said. From this donation, she also provided for the foundation of the Carl J. Thomsen Fund for student enrichment. The Thomsen fund offers students free tickets to off-campus cultural events such as symphony orchestra concerts and operatic performances.

McDermott joins UTD founders Eugene McDermott (1969), Cecil H. Green (1973) and Erik Jonsson (1977) as an award recipient, the first since Wales H. Madden, Jr., received the award in 2002.

UT System universities do not bestow honorary degrees, said Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs and Provost Hobson Wildenthal. Instead, the System issues the Santa Rita Award, which is akin to an honorary degree, but considered a higher honor.

Recipients of the Santa Rita award have demonstrated continued commitment to higher education, assisted in the realization of UT System goals, secured funding for such goals and done so while setting an example of “selfless and public-spirited service,” according to the regents’ web site.

“Mrs. McDermott is immanently well qualified for this honor,” Wildenthal said. “She’s not eager for honors, but accepted (the award) because she knew that it was good for the (UTD’s) cause.”