Edith Jones O’Donnell, who played a pivotal role in advancing educational and arts endeavors in her adopted city — so much so that one executive describes her as belonging on “a Mount Rushmore” of Dallas philanthropists — died at her home Saturday night. She was 94.
“Edith lived a purpose-driven life,” said Peter O’Donnell Jr., 96, whom she married in 1952 and with whom she shared a more than 60-year partnership in philanthropy. “She never stopped thinking about the arts and the next big thing. Her central concept was making Dallas a center for creativity.”
O’Donnell and her husband co-founded the O’Donnell Foundation in 1957, and for many years most of their gifts — which total $780 million, according to her husband’s published memoir — were anonymous.
“It was not until recently that they liked their names on anything,” said Edith O’Donnell’s close friend and fellow philanthropist, Margot Perot, the widow of Ross Perot Sr.
“They had a wonderful marriage and were a great team,” Perot said Monday. “They have done so much for Dallas. They were so close. They did everything together. They gave in so many quiet ways and were supremely generous.”
Born in Abilene, O’Donnell was the daughter of Percy Jones, an engineer and builder of railroads in West Texas. He also acquired ranch properties that were part of what we now know as the Permian Basin. During their marriage, O’Donnell’s husband became a successful investor in publicly traded securities. She and her husband shared their wealth extensively but for years clung to a low profile.
One exception to O’Donnell’s anonymous style of largesse came in 2014, when she gave $17 million to the University of Texas at Dallas for the creation of the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History.
The UT system followed O’Donnell’s gift with an additional $10 million, and other philanthropists added $3 million more, according to Michael Thomas, director of the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History. It is housed in the Edith O’Donnell Arts and Technology Building, which was dedicated in 2013.
“People don’t fund the arts very much anymore,” Thomas said, “especially in a day and age — and this has been magnified by COVID — where more and more funding will be going to the sciences, and universities are dismantling, and to a certain extent pulling resources away, from the humanities and fine arts, especially art history. Her generosity was truly something, and her vision to see the importance of funding our institute was a rarity, and something that for UTD was very much needed.”
Thomas mourned O’Donnell’s passing as coming just two years after that of Margaret McDermott, whom he described as being among the city’s greatest generation of philanthropists, and UTD administrator and “rainmaker” Rick Brettell, who enlisted the financial backing of both women to bring about an educational turning point for the school. (From 2013 to 2018, Brettell doubled as art critic of The Dallas Morning News.)
Thomas described O’Donnell, McDermott and Brettell as “a triumvirate for the arts in Dallas.” Mrs. O’Donnell, he said, “needs to be there as one of the faces on a Mount Rushmore of arts and philanthropy in Dallas.”
Brettell’s widow, Caroline Brettell, said O’Donnell’s “support of Rick and the O’Donnell institute was fundamentally important for Rick and obviously transformative for the University of Texas at Dallas. It skyrocketed the study of art history within this science and technology school. It took it into another stratosphere.”
According to Caroline Brettell, Monet scholar Paul Tucker, who was among Rick Brettell’s closest friends, tells the story of being in the car with Brettell when he got the call informing him that O’Donnell was willing to give $17 million to UTD. Rick Brettell once noted that O’Donnell’s philanthropy was grounded “in an unflinching belief that human creativity in the arts is essential for a healthy culture.”
“The O’Donnells gave so quietly and anonymously for most of her life,” Caroline Brettell said. “And then late in life, they started to be more public about it. They saw in Rick somebody who had such a creative mind. They put their money behind things that they saw as winning initiatives. In UTD’s case, it started at $5 million and went to $12 [million], and then Peter said, ‘Put the two together,’ and it became $17 million. They went in very modestly, and then Peter came back and said, ‘Not ambitious enough.’ This was Peter and Edith working together. She was often so quiet, but this was all for her.
“She was so passionate about the arts, and he was interested in the sciences, but he was very proud to have her name on that initiative. And how innovative it was for a university like UTD. You’d have to look hard around the country to find such a monumental gift to the arts. They really kept pushing Rick to make it more and more ambitious.”
But by no means did O’Donnell limit her philanthropy to the arts. As Margot Perot noted, O’Donnell and her husband made major contributions to two of Perot’s causes, UT Southwestern Medical Center and the Perot Museum of Nature & Science.
Their support of education, science, medicine and engineering qualifies them, in the words of William Solomon, the chairman, president and CEO of the O’Donnell Foundation, “as being among the leading philanthropists in Texas history.”
“Gracious lady comes to mind when I think of Edith,” Solomon said. “Beautiful and gracious in every way. But beyond that, her remarkable philanthropic generosity and the energy, vision and leadership that she put behind her philanthropy has left an indelible mark on the state of Texas and most particularly the arts in Dallas.”
Born on Aug. 27, 1926, to Percy Jones and philanthropist and civic leader Ruth Leggett Jones, O’Donnell attended the public schools in Abilene before graduating from the Hockaday School in Dallas in 1944. She attended Mills College in Oakland, Calif., and later graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 1948.
On Nov. 22, 1952, she married Peter O’Donnell Jr., with whom she embarked on 63 years of charitable giving. In the month after they married, she volunteered as a docent at what was then the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts in Fair Park, beginning, in the words of her foundation, “a lifelong journey to elevate the arts in Dallas and beyond.”
Her mother created the Dodge Jones Foundation in 1954, which became a model for the O’Donnell Foundation, which Edith and Peter O’Donnell Jr. co-founded in 1957.
In addition to UTD, her commitment to philanthropy extended to the AT&T Performing Arts Center, Big Thought, Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Perot Museum of Nature & Science, Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University and the College of Fine Arts at UT Austin.
The DMA issued a statement Monday, calling O’Donnell “a visionary philanthropist,” who, with her husband in 2013, made a multiyear gift of $9 million to “reestablish the DMA’s free general admission policy” and to digitize the museum’s entire collection.
DMA director Agustín Arteaga cited her “warm and enormous heart” and praised her proclivity for “giving all that she could to her community, especially to the youngest members of our city.”
O’Donnell listed as one of her “crowning achievements” the annual “Young Masters” exhibition, which from 1996 to 2018 featured select works created by students participating in the O’Donnell Foundation’s AP Fine Arts Incentive Program. In the 24-year history of the program, more than 20,500 arts and music students took part.
“I go back to see the exhibits many times and just glow over them,” O’Donnell told The Dallas Morning News in 2008.
She spoke often of hoping to improve arts education for students and teachers at all grade levels — from elementary school through graduate school. In 1967, she co-founded Young Audiences of Greater Dallas, in hopes of restoring the arts to public schools in the Dallas area. Young Audiences later became Big Thought, which, as one of the largest arts education programs in the country, focuses on inequity. She was fond of noting that, by 2016, Big Thought had served 7.7 million students, sponsored 30,000 performances and trained 66,000 teachers.