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Personification of purpose: Margaret McDermott's name 'synonymous with giving back'

Her influence was monumental. Her manner was unassuming. Her generosity was legendary. And her smile was unforgettable. At 106, Margaret Milam McDermott was the personification of purpose. She died Thursday, leaving a decades-long legacy of giving and community involvement.

“Today is a sad day – for Mary and me, for our Texas Instruments family around the world, for the Dallas/Fort Worth community, and for thousands whose lives have been touched by Margaret McDermott,” said Rich Templeton, chairman, president and CEO of Texas Instruments.

“Personally, Margaret meant so much to Mary and to me. She has been a true and loyal friend, beside us through good times and trying times. She has been TI’s staunchest advocate and coach, always believing in the great impact our company can make. In action and spirit, Margaret set an example we will always strive to emulate.”

Over six decades, Margaret, the wife of TI founder Eugene McDermott, gave tens of millions of dollars to better the lives of the people in her community. From championing education and basic needs to building hospitals, libraries, cultural art centers and more, Margaret made an indelible mark on the North Texas community.

“Margaret exuded warmth and compassion for everyone she met, and had an understated grace and generous spirit that came from a lifetime rich with experience and hard work,” said Mary Templeton, Margaret’s longtime friend and wife of Rich Templeton.

“Margaret and her late husband, Eugene – a TI founder – demonstrated a deep commitment to to the community,” said TIer Terri Grosh. “From TI’s early days, they inspired a spirit of giving back. Their commitment to the community helped instill those very same values in TI as a company. The McDermott legacy has strongly influenced our culture and many decades of community service from TIers around the world.”

“We owe what we understand and know and do about philanthropy to Margaret,” said Terri West, retired TIer and chair of the TI Foundation board. “She led generations of new TIers to understand the importance and the impact of philanthropy.”

To honor Margaret and all she’s done for TI and Dallas, the TI Foundation recently created a community impact award and three fellowship programs. The first community impact award will be given this year to TIers who have embodied the spirit of giving. The TI Founders Leadership Fellows program provides three annual nonprofit work experiences to university or graduate students planning a nonprofit career. Designed to build a pipeline of nonprofit leaders in the Dallas area over the next 20 years, the fellowships were established in collaboration with three local organizations that Margaret loved and blessed with her generosity – the Dallas Museum of Art, the University of Texas at Dallas and the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas.

Margaret’s family came to Texas in 1829. A native Dallasite, she was born Margaret Milam on Feb. 18, 1912. She lived through the Great Depression and worked in the 1930s as society editor for The Dallas Morning News, covering debutante balls and charity events. As a society reporter, Margaret regularly attended balls in Dallas. At one such ball in the late 1930s, she was escorted by O’Neal Ford, a famous architect. It was on this special evening that she met geophysicist Eugene “Gene” McDermott, president of the Petroleum Club and a co-founder of Geophysical Service, Inc. (GSI), which went on to become Texas Instruments in 1951.

It was not until many years and experiences later that she would reconnect with Gene. Margaret left the society pages behind her and went on to cover World War II from India and worked for the American Red Cross in India, Germany and Japan during and after the war. In 1943, Margaret applied and was accepted as a U.S. Army civilian in the American Red Cross, with her first assignment in Tezpur, the northern Indian province of Assam. By the end of the war, she applied and was accepted for a position in Germany, where she lived from 1946 to 1948. It was “a country in ruins, total defeat,” she wrote.

Not ready to return home, Margaret then moved to Japan, where she lived on a small island across from Hiroshima Bay in 1948-49. Her time in India, Germany and Japan during the war and its aftermath birthed in Margaret an “international longing for peace,” she wrote.

It was concern for her parents that brought Margaret back to Texas, where she re-met Gene when she interviewed him for a story. He asked her out to dinner. “Through that connection and seeing her at different events around town, he took a liking to her,” said Max Post, a retired TIer, who visited Margaret at her home in 2004 when he was doing research for a book about TI called Engineering the World.

Gene and Margaret married in 1952. For their honeymoon, they travelled around the world to visit TI sites, Max said. “It was like a work thing,” he said. “That sounds like a TIer – taking your wife on a honeymoon trip to visit the operations. Thoughtfully, he took her to London and Paris on the way, which they enjoyed.”

Two years after their marriage, Gene and Margaret bought the ranch in Allen where they lived for many years. Among her regular visitors was one of her dear friends, Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson. “Allen was a small town at the time,” Max said. “One day, a neighbor near the ranch called the police in the city of Allen to report that a very strange helicopter was hovering over the ranch and had come frequently. They suspected suspicious activity. But it was Lady Bird Johnson coming to visit Margaret McDermott and talk about Texas wildflowers and see what she had done at the ranch.”

Gene and Margaret founded the Eugene McDermott Foundation in 1955. Their daughter, Mary McDermott Cook, is now the president.

In 1961, Gene McDermott partnered with J. Erik Jonsson and Cecil Green – also co-founders of TI – to establish the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest, later renamed the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies, in Richardson. Created as a facility for students to complete their doctoral work and continue research, the center became part of the University of Texas system in 1969 and was renamed the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD).

“Early on, TI recognized that to hire technical talent and keep them in Dallas, they needed a first-class research university,” Max said. “So they started working with what we had here. There didn’t seem to be a lot of support at the time from other universities stepping up in that area. So they said, ‘We’re going to have to do it ourselves if we really want to do this.’ They just stepped up and did it.”

The McDermotts, the Greens and the Jonssons bought several hundred acres and donated it to the university.

“In the beginning, it was this little building with a transmitter tower,” said Sam Self, a retired TIer and former chairman of the TI Foundation Board, who now serves as a trustee of the Eugene McDermott Foundation. “Gene took Mrs. Mac up there to see the land, and she said, ‘This is the ugliest piece of land I’ve ever seen in my life.’ It was flat as it could be – all cotton fields. There were no native trees, nothing. A few years ago Mrs. Mac, as she’s often called by friends, donated a painting from her vast art collection to fund Peter Walker, the landscape architect who designed the Nasher Sculpture gardens, to beautify the grounds at UTD. “Now, when you drive onto that campus, there is a winding road, native trees, and beautiful magnolia trees leading to the central courtyard. All of that was done because Mrs. Mac wanted to beautify the grounds.

In 2000, Margaret made the largest private gift in UTD’s history, $32 million, to establish the Eugene McDermott Scholars Program.  The program is one of the most selective and generous undergraduate merit awards in the nation. It has benefitted more than 350 recipients since it was established, and covers all costs for some of the best and brightest students in the country – including costs to study abroad.

“The McDermott name is synonymous with giving back,” said Peter Balyta, president of TI Education Technology and vice president of Academic Engagement and Corporate Citizenship. “The University of Texas at Dallas, my alma mater, was one of her passions since her husband co-founded it in 1961. From the many professorships and scholarships she endowed there, to her steadfast support for science and engineering programs, Mrs. McDermott significantly advanced the cause of STEM education in North Texas for generations to come.”

Margaret’s devotion to advancing education could be seen throughout her life – from the time she was a founding trustee for the Dallas County Community College District to the endowed positions she supported at St. Mark’s School and Hockaday. Other educational institutions that have benefited from Margaret and the Eugene McDermott Foundation’s gifts include the University of Dallas, the University of Texas Health Science Center, Southern Methodist University and University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

Gene and Margaret’s long legacy of giving at UT Southwestern Medical Center can be seen not only in the buildings and grounds, but in the physicians who practice, research and teach there. “Margaret’s passion for supporting the basic needs of our communities – including health and education – helped shape the landscape of Dallas,” Rich said. “Her countless contributions and generosity were an inspiration and have made a tremendous impact that will last for generations to come.”

In addition to championing community needs, Margaret’s love for arts and culture was legendary. She served as board president of the Dallas Museum of Art from 1962-64 and later was chairman of the board and chairman of acquisitions in the 1970s. “Art brought Margaret great joy, and she wanted that joy to be experienced by others,” said Jennifer Sampson, McDermott Templeton President and CEO of United Way of Metropolitan Dallas. “I heard her tell stories about how her love for art began with the travels she went on with Gene. They would learn about arts and culture all over the world, and she would bring that knowledge back to influence the culture of arts in Dallas. Many of the pieces of art the DMA has today are from Margaret’s own collection.”

In her yet-to-be-published book, Margaret wrote about the influence of art in her life: “Art took us around the world, and brought the world to us. The collectors we met, the dealers we relied upon, the visitors we welcomed into our home, and the artists we loved all became part of our world in Dallas.” Additional arts and culture organizations supported by the Eugene McDermott Foundation include the Meyerson Symphony Center, the Winspear Opera house, the Dallas Symphony Center, the Dallas Arboretum, the Dallas Zoo, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the Dallas Center for Performing Arts.

Each of the categories Margaret supported was close to her heart, Sam said. “With all of these things that she did, it was about making people’s lives better,” Sam said. “More beautiful, healthier, more educated. Better.”

After six decades of devoted philanthropy, Margaret remained a member of the Eugene McDermott Foundation board through her last years, and frequently supplemented foundation gifts with her own personal funds, Sam said. Margaret also frequently spoke of her deep and abiding love for TI -- and said all of her philanthropy would not have been possible without TI.

Margaret was always interested in people. Frequently at charity dinners, Sam would sit next to Margaret. “At some point, Mrs. Mac would tap on her glass and say, ‘Let’s go around the table and talk a little bit, and why don’t we start with you. Tell us a little about yourself.’ And she would go to every person. She genuinely wanted to know about the people around the table.” The quality Sam admired most about Margaret was not just her generosity, he said, but her graciousness.

Anyone who spent time with Margaret would be challenged to think differently about the community we live in, said Mary. “Margaret is still making a difference every day. Her ability to identify and develop people who could make an impact in the community was inspiring,” Mary said. One of the ways Margaret did this was to invite people to her home. “A lunch with Margaret was never about the food,” she said. “With Margaret, every lunch had a purpose.”

At one such lunch, Margaret had invited Mary and her husband, Rich, and former TI CEO Tom Engibous and his wife, Wendy. “After a few pleasantries, discussing wildflowers and life in the community, the lunch quickly turned serious over a glass of wine,” Mary said. “Margaret wanted lunch at the Winspear to discuss the symphony. She wanted us to have lunch with the new DMA president to review her permanent collection. She wanted to discuss the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library in downtown Dallas, which needed more funding. And she gave us a summary of her opinion of the new TI board members, who were lovely.” The list of things that needed to be addressed was lengthy, said Mary, who took notes to capture actions that needed to be taken following the meal.

Margaret’s “lunches with purpose” influenced the grants she made, both through the Eugene McDermott Foundation and out of her own money, Sam said. It is fitting, Sam said, that Margaret’s name is now permanently attached to Margaret McDermott Bridge, a structure that brings beauty and interesting curves and architectural significance to a Dallas skyline that was once very angular and square. “Had they told her that they wanted to name the bridge for her, I know what she would have said. ‘No, and no, and no,’” Sam said. “But they named it for her, and I think it is the most appropriate thing. Mrs. Mac enjoyed looking at that beautiful structure, even though there were five people whom she would have named it after instead of her.”

While the lion’s share of her philanthropic gifts occurred in Dallas and surrounding areas, Mrs. McDermott’s influence reached far beyond institutions of brick and mortar to the hearts of countless people she inspired to do more – to do better. From people she met along her many travels to those who gave back alongside her – to the students and former students who owe the breadth of their education to her – Mrs. McDermott’s impact will continue to spread from person to person, around the world, through the people she has touched and the people they will touch.

Mrs. McDermott is survived by her daughter, Mary McDermott Cook, and granddaughter, Grace Ellen Cook.

There will be a memorial service on Tuesday, May 8, 2018, 11:00 am, at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Hall. In lieu of flowers, please send contributions to the University of Texas at Dallas, The Eugene McDermott Scholars Program, 800 W. Campbell Road, Richardson, Texas, 75080, or the charity of your choice.

Article courtesy of Texas Instruments.  Click here to see photos of the McDermott's.