By STEPHANIE REITZ, Associated Press
WEST HAVEN, Conn. (AP) _ When Dr. Henry Lee joined the University of New Haven in 1975, its forensics program consisted of a filing cabinet containing one dusty polygraph machine, random fingerprinting supplies and a plaster mold kit for footprints that couldn’t be used because there was no budget to replace it.
Today, forensics is the university’s largest program and a new $11.5 million institute bears the internationally-renowned scientist’s name –over Lee’s vehement protests, though, and only because UNH’s president convinced him it would help the school attract top students and faculty.
While he’s best known for forensics work on high-profile cases such as the O.J. Simpson and Jon Benet Ramsey investigations, there’s another Henry Lee behind the scenes: an “angel donor,” one of countless low-key, often anonymous benefactors nationwide whose gifts or influence have helped launch or save their favored colleges’ most critical programs.
As the economy has made fundraising more challenging in recent years, some universities are being buoyed by longtime angel donors whose quiet philanthropy is plugging budget holes. Their gifts occasionally come so anonymously that the schools do not even know their benefactors’ identities right away.
In Lee’s case, UNH officials say he is directly or indirectly responsible for bringing in more than $15 million in grants, donations, equipment and other gifts over the past few decades. His work in developing the forensics program that he now leads also pushed UNH past a critical hump in the mid-1990s when hospitality studies, once its largest major, was dropping in enrollment.
“In many ways, he’s responsible for the university getting through some very difficult times,” UNH President Steven Kaplan said. “Henry is the only donor that I’ve ever come across who gives in every imaginable way, and always without any wish for recognition.”
Another angel donor, Margaret Anne Cargill, used some of her money as an heir to her family’s agri-business empire to pour more than $3.3 million over eight years into tiny Berea College in central Kentucky.
Cargill had no direct ties to Berea, other than a friendship with a woman who attended the college for one semester in the 1950s. Berea officials did not even know she was their benefactor until it was revealed after her death in 2005.
Her donations allowed the college to preserve irreplaceable examples of traditional Appalachian music in digital format, transform dozens of acres of its land into organic pastures, install photovoltaic cells on a campus building and finance many other initiatives that Berea wanted, but couldn’t afford on its own.
“We called her our anonymous angel,” Berea College President Larry Shinn said, adding they know of only one time she is believed to have visited the campus, where all of the approximately 1,500 students get four-year, full-tuition scholarships and most come from low-income families or regions.
In one of the best-known angel donor cases, one or more benefactors donated more than $70 million in 2008 and 2009 to at least 15 colleges and universities with female presidents, but the giver’s identity was so carefully shielded through law firms or other intermediaries the schools didn’t even know it.
It’s still not publicly known.
By their very nature, the publicity-shy approach of angel donors makes it hard to quantify how many are working behind the scenes at U.S. colleges and universities. Philanthropy experts say anonymous gifts given directly from donors account for up to 5 percent of all charitable giving, but there’s no firm estimate on how many also use their influence to get others to give, too.
Donor surveys have found those who choose to remain anonymous often don’t want to open the door to a flood of fundraising solicitations, wanting to protect their privacy while still helping the causes most dear to them.
“You do often find cases where anonymous gifts will become public later. In that respect, there’s a fair amount of discussion in the fundraising profession of their conviction and ability to convince the donor that it will help their cause if they become public,” said Dwight Burlingame, a professor of philanthropic studies and director of academic programs at The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.
That’s the case with Henry Lee, who agreed only reluctantly to discuss his behind-the-scenes philanthropy because he hoped it would encourage others to support the forensics program.
“They give me too much credit,” he said of UNH officials’ praise, though the school’s fundraising tallies show his financial legacy includes everything from generous checks of his own to random gifts from strangers who’ve sent donations after watching reruns of his 2004 Court TV show, “Trace Evidence.”
He also donates his honorariums, court-case consulting payments and speaking fees to the school, whose earliest forensics equipment consisted of secondhand microscopes and other castoffs he acquired from other colleges and hospitals.
Many of Lee’s former students, colleagues and friends have also given millions of dollars in his honor, UNH officials say.
“This country and this university gave me (a) chance to learn, to grow, to develop,” said Lee, a Chinese-American who came to the U.S. from Taiwan in 1964 with $50 and no English proficiency. “(When) we come to this Earth, we bring nothing. We leave with nothing. So why would we not give if we can help our fellow students or university or (another) person?”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)