Anna SchaefferMercury Staff
POSTED3 months ago
Philanthropist leaves legacy of campus beautification, art initiatives
Editor’s Note: Updated to include statements from members of the UTD community.
One of the most influential figures at UTD and in the Dallas community, Margaret McDermott passed away at the age of 106.
Mary McDermott Cook, her daughter, confirmed her passing in a statement to the Dallas Morning News on May 3.
McDermott continued to gift the university until the end of her life, donating over $30 million to revitalize and beautify UTD’s campus over the last decade through the Campus Enhancement Project. Her endowment of $10 million in 2017 provided the Honors College a new name and called for an expanded focus on undergraduate research. Her $32 million gift in 2000 to establish the Eugene McDermott Scholars Program in memory of her late husband was one of the single largest donations in UTD history.
McDermott was born Margaret Milam in February of 1912. An alumna of UT Austin, she went on to write for the Dallas Times Herald and the Dallas Morning News, then volunteered through the American Red Cross to report on World War II in Germany, India and Japan in a time when few women were involved in journalism. In 1951 she married Eugene McDermott, one of the founders of Texas Instruments and UTD. The two dedicated their lives to philanthropy, art and education in the Dallas community.
Research scientist Eric Kildebeck was a part of the inaugural class of Eugene McDermott Scholars in 2001. He said that around the nation and the world, every individual who had met McDermott had a deep respect for her.
“She was a marvelous woman,” Kildebeck said. “She cared about people. She always had a lot of people over her house, she was always incredibly kind, and she was interested in them, regardless of their status, to get to know them and meet them.”
Hobson Wildenthal, executive vice president, worked closely with McDermott to implement several of her campus initiatives. Wildenthal said his most vivid memory of McDermott was of her meeting 30 McDermott Scholars last year at her ranch in Allen.
“Her health had declined a little bit over the last year, so we were worried that it was going to tire her out,” Wildenthal said. “Every single time a student gave their little speech, Ms. McDermott responded with a totally appropriate, very witty reply. Us old folks, knowing how old and tired she was, were just amazed at how she could summon up the energy and the presence of mind and wit to do that, 30 times in a row.”
Some of McDermott’s prominent gifts to UTD include the Richard Brettell Award in the Arts to biannually honor an artist whose work demonstrated achievement in their field. In the wider Dallas community, she gave over 3,100 works to the Dallas Museum of Art and was a benefactor of the Dallas Symphony and Dallas Opera.
Visual and performing arts senior Elyse Mack, a 2014 McDermott Scholar, said one of McDermott’s salient traits was the level of attention she gave to others. Mack said after a dinner in Highland Park last year to celebrate the town’s annual tree lighting ceremony, McDermott personally thanked every staff member at the restaurant and gave them all hugs.
“It was incredible, the kindness and individual attention,” Mack said. “For her it wasn’t about her own name or getting thanks. That’s something I hope to carry with me for the rest of my life, not worrying so much about what’s said about you but just continuing to do what’s right.”
Kildebeck said some philanthropists choose to invest in buildings or capital, but McDermott made her mark by investing in people.
“That will be her legacy — finding good people, getting them excited and then getting them to go and change the world,” he said. “That is our charge, because we want to, and in memory of her. More than the buildings and donations, the people are her legacy.”