The University of Kansas on Tuesday celebrated the largest single donation from individual donors in school history.
The $58 million gift from the estate of Madison “Al” and Lila Self will provide fellowships and scholarships for students in business, economics and the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math.
Tuesday’s announcement brings the total donation from the couple to $106 million, making them the university’s most generous private donors, school officials said.
Al Self died in January 2013 in Hinsdale, Ill., a Chicago suburb where he and his wife had lived for nearly half a century. Lila Self died 10 months later. Both were 91. Their only child, son Murray A. Self, preceded them in death.
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Al Self and Lila Reetz grew up in rural Kansas and met at KU, where Al Self earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1943. They married in September that year.
Four years later, the Selfs, who both came from modest means, purchased a company with three employees — the Bee Chemical Co. in Lansing, Ill. When they sold it in 1984, the firm had grown to an international producer of polymers and polymer coatings for use on plastics. It had five U.S. manufacturing facilities and operations in Japan and England.
Al Self later became the chief executive officer of Tioga International, a provider of coatings for the plastics and rubber industries.
“Throughout the nearly 25 years that I knew Al and Lila Self, they remained committed to KU and were steadfast in their support of students,” said Dale Seuferling, president of KU Endowment.
KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little met with the Selfs on several occasions, including their final visit to campus in 2011.
“Lila and Al were dedicated to contributing to the personal growth of KU students so they can become the leaders our society needs,” she said in a statement. “Their gift will benefit generations of KU students whose innovations and ideas will create prosperity and well-being long into the future.”
While there is at least one area on the Lawrence campus named for the couple — Self Computing Commons in Eaton Hall — “they were not big believers in bricks and mortar, but were more about investing in people, in this case students,” Seuferling said.
Among the many scholarships and programs supported through the Selfs’ donations are the Self Graduate Fellowship program, as well as the Self Engineering Leadership Fellows program for undergraduates, the Mossberg Pharmacy Professorship and the Society of Self Fellows.
Of this latest gift, $39 million will be added to the Self Graduate Fellowship Fund for doctoral students in STEM fields, business and economics; $15 million will go to the engineering leadership program; and $4 million will go into a new Self Graduating Senior Fellowship Fund to recognize graduating students for their achievements.
Seuferling said the Selfs focused a great deal on supporting graduate education.
“They saw it as an opportunity to make investment in students who had already identified a career path” and could be reasonably predicted to follow through with those aspirations, Seuferling said. “Al was interested in creating leaders in the field.”
The graduate fellowship program began in 1989 with a $1 million gift, and to date KU has had 154 Self graduate fellows. It has 31 now. Over four years, each will receive $165,000 in financial support.
The undergraduate fellowship program began in 2006. Those students each receive $24,000 over four years.
The Selfs’ gift has helped the university reach its $1.2 billion goal in its “Far Above” campaign, which launched publicly in 2012 with a projected 2016 finish line.
The Selfs’ donation is part of a new level of giving to colleges and universities seen across the country. The Giving USA Foundation found that Americans donated a record $52.07 billion to education in 2013, according to Inside Higher Education. Adjusted for inflation, that is a 7.4 percent increase over the previous year.
Other universities in the area also have received record individual donations in the past five years.
Jack Vanier and his family this year donated $60 million to Kansas State University, including $20 million for improvements to Bill Snyder Family Stadium. It was the largest private donation in K-State history.
The University of Missouri-Kansas City saw its biggest donation in 2011, when Henry Bloch donated $32 million for a business school building.
The University of Missouri said it has received record multimillion-dollar gifts in recent years from anonymous donors who asked that the amounts not be specified.
In 2001, MU received $25 million from Bill and Nancy Laurie toward a new sports arena.