Edith O’Donnell, one of Texas’ — and The University of Texas at Dallas’ — most generous philanthropists and a strong proponent of education, science and the arts, died Nov. 14 at the age of 94.
Over the past 60 years, O’Donnell and her husband, Peter O’Donnell, have contributed quietly and substantially to educational and arts establishments in Texas. At UT Dallas in 2013, the Edith O’Donnell Arts and Technology Building was dedicated in her honor. The following year, she made a $17 million gift to establish the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History.
Known for their civic and business leadership, the couple established the O’Donnell Foundation in 1957. That foundation has played an enormous role in advancing education and scientific research. Their contributions over the years to UT Dallas alone total more than $39 million.
“When UT Dallas honored Edith O’Donnell with the naming of the building, it was a reflection of our gratitude and esteem for her. Her foresight, along with that of her husband, Peter, has transformed the arts, higher education and scientific innovation not only at UT Dallas but also throughout Texas,” said UT Dallas President Richard C. Benson, the Eugene McDermott Distinguished University Chair of Leadership.
Dr. Inga Musselman, provost, vice president for academic affairs and the Cecil H. Green Distinguished Chair of Academic Leadership, said, “Mrs. Edith O’Donnell’s generous gift that created the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History set UT Dallas on a new path of expansion in the arts, complementing the University’s strong foundation in science, technology and management.”
Dr. Hobson Wildenthal, former provost and current Distinguished Scholar in Residence and professor of physics, said, “The O’Donnells have been committed to the development of UT Dallas’ academic programs throughout the University’s history. Their support has been transformative and has contributed greatly to our success as a rising national research institution.”
“When UT Dallas honored Edith O’Donnell with the naming of the building, it was a reflection of our gratitude and esteem for her. Her foresight, along with that of her husband, Peter, has transformed the arts, higher education and scientific innovation not only at UT Dallas but also throughout Texas.”
UT Dallas President Richard C. Benson
In addition to O’Donnell’s signature gift to establish the first art history institute founded in the digital age, the O’Donnells made several multimillion-dollar donations to establish endowments to recruit and retain faculty for the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication (ATEC).
Dr. Michael Thomas, director of the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History and holder of the Richard R. Brettell Distinguished University Chair, described O’Donnell as a “visionary.”
“Her focused philanthropy and love of art history, as well as her great desire to make the arts accessible to every person, particularly students, transformed UT Dallas from a science, engineering and technology-focused university to one that fosters and champions creativity as well,” Thomas said.
The institute, which is housed in the Edith O’Donnell Arts and Technology Building, also maintains facilities in the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA). It is a center of innovative research and education in the history of art that ranges across geography, chronology and medium.
Edith Jones O’Donnell was born in Abilene, Texas, in 1926 to Percy Jones and Ruth Legett Jones, a philanthropic West Texas couple with significant oil and real estate holdings. Edith and Peter O’Donnell were married in 1952. They have three daughters: Carol Kradolfer (Lyle), Ann O’Donnell and Ruth Mutch, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
For more than five decades, the O’Donnells have supported UT System institutions, including UT Dallas, UT Southwestern Medical Center and Edith O’Donnell’s alma mater, UT Austin, from which she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
The O’Donnell Foundation primarily supports engineering, science and math education along with arts programs, and has donated more than $780 million since its founding. Edith O’Donnell’s passion for the arts has been evident in her support of the DMA — where she served as chair in 1992 and later as a trustee, the Dallas Opera, Dallas Symphony Orchestra, AT&T Performing Arts Center, Perot Museum of Nature and Science, Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University and UT Austin’s College of Fine Arts. A gift to the DMA in 2013 ensured free general admission and enabled the museum to publish its entire collection online.
“Her focused philanthropy and love of art history, as well as her great desire to make the arts accessible to every person, particularly students, transformed UT Dallas from a science, engineering and technology-focused university to one that fosters and champions creativity as well.”
Dr. Michael Thomas, director of the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History
“Our nation must recognize that creative thinking is as important a process in the functioning of the brain as are math and science,” O’Donnell said in 2005. “Developing an imagination and self-expression are skills learned through creative thinking. When creativity exists in one field, it is contagious to all other fields.”
Her lifelong journey to elevate the arts has been recognized with numerous awards, including Dallas’ Linz Award, one of the oldest and most prestigious civic honors, and the UT Distinguished Alumnus Award.
- UT Dallas