The Greatest Gift
Former schoolteacher leaves a legacy
Months after former school
teacher Mary E. McKinney died, her
financial records and personal correspondence
sat in seven bright green
woven baskets, piled hip-high in corners
of an office at Jefferson Bank.
Mary E. McKinney (top right) taught at St. Margaret Mary Catholic School for five years before retiring.
Photo courtesy of St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church
But even these boxes held few clues about McKinney, the
San Antonio native who liked her privacy almost as much as
her signature hot-pink lipstick. They certainly don't explain
why she bequeathed millions of dollars to UTSA.
"She never said why she was giving to UTSA," said Robert
E. Wehmeyer Jr., division president of trust and private asset
management of Jefferson Bank and executor of the estate.
"We certainly weren't aware of the bequest until we probated
Her estate gift, estimated at $22 million, is the largest single
private gift in university history. It is also the largest gift
to be given in higher education in Texas this year. Included
is a portfolio of stocks and municipal bonds as well as three
parcels of ranch land in Frio and Atascosa counties totaling
5,240 acres. This lush but nondescript land, sprinkled with
wildflowers and cacti, ponds and cattle—and, symbolically,
roadrunners—also sits atop the Eagle Ford Shale, considered
to be the most significant U.S. oilfield discovery in the
last 40 years.
It wasn't until after McKinney died in November that the
importance of the property was discovered. The real estate
portion of her gift alone is valued at $13 million and includes
surface rights and oil and gas rights to the three ranches. UTSA
has signed a mineral lease for one of the Frio County ranches,
entitling the university to a 25 percent royalty on production,
and is working on similar deals on the other two properties.
The money will continue to fund The Felix and Elizabeth
McKinney Memorial Scholarship Fund, created by McKinney
in 1994 in honor of her parents.
University officials anticipate that it will help hundreds of
students every year.
"Let me tell you, her gift is going to continue to be transformational,"
said President Ricardo Romo. "With the mineral
rights, we expect that generous bequest will be giving to
the university even more for many years to come. This will
change the lives of generations of UTSA students."
McKinney, who was born in 1930, grew up on the South
Side of San Antonio. She was the only child of Felix and
Elizabeth (Dee) Carnes McKinney. Her father was a locomotive
engineer for Southern Pacific Railroad and her mother
was a homemaker. Neither of them had a formal education,
but they had a love of learning.
"They were determined to provide a university education
for their daughter," Romo said.
And they did. McKinney graduated from Trinity University
in 1950 with a bachelor of arts and in 1952 received a
master's degree from the University of Texas at Austin.
"She was very interested in education and felt strongly
that people should be well read and well educated and
know what is going on in the world," Wehmeyer said.
McKinney taught for 25 years in public and private
schools around San Antonio, retiring from St. Margaret Mary
Catholic School on the Southeast Side. After she retired,
McKinney once again pursued her own education, enrolling
in 11 post-graduate courses at UTSA from 1992 to 1996.
An avid reader who spent many hours in the John Peace
Library, "she had one whole room [in her home] devoted to
books; there were bookshelves even in the closet," said Laura
Gonzales, a trust officer with
Jefferson Bank who worked
closely with McKinney.
Some of those books are
now in UTSA's rare books
and Texana collections.
It was after receiving
a C in her Chaucer class
that McKinney gave up her
hopes of earning a second
master's degree. She stopped
attending classes, but continued
to make her mark on the
university. As the story goes,
McKinney was waiting in line
one day to register for classes.
All around her were students
talking about their struggles
with financial aid.
"She had overheard
them talking about the difficulties
they were having paying
their tuition," said Betty
Murray Halff '76, former
director of development for
UTSA. "She was alarmed by
that information and immediately
wanted to do something that would help."
Soon after, she developed the memorial scholarship.
Her gifts to the university began modestly—her first one
was $4,000—but she made consistent gifts each year. By
the time she died in 2009, her lifetime contribution was
The McKinney ranch land had been passed down
through her mother's family. Her father slowly added to the
acreage, using his life savings to purchase some parcels at
$10 an acre.
McKinney inherited her parents' frugality along with
the land. She also coveted her privacy, often preferring to
"She was such an independent lady, she hated for us to
make a big deal over her," said Marjie French, vice president
for university advancement. "She downplayed everything."
McKinney was a petite woman who often appeared shy. But
that was completely misleading, Halff said. "She was slight
in stature but strong in character and huge in moral fortitude,"
In fact, those who knew McKinney said her signature
lipstick was a rebellion against her father, who would never
have approved of the bold color.
"She was poised, well-groomed and unassuming," said
Linda Lopez-George, executive director of development. "She
She also loved fashion. Often, she'd pepper women she
encountered with questions about their handbags and
shoes. But McKinney's most important accessory was her
"She'd wear him on her shoulder," Gonzales said.
McKinney detested asking anyone for help because she
didn't want to become dependent on it.
Determined and strong with a lot of spunk, she
also took kickboxing classes, often going to the
gym four or five times a week.
In the two decades that she gave to UTSA, more than
100 students benefitted from her scholarship. She saved
thank-you notes from those students—they were included
in the seven green baskets containing her personal papers
at Jefferson Bank.
In large script on notebook paper, one student thanks
McKinney for helping her "achieve her dreams" without
having to sacrifice more for her children. "Being a single
mother and attending UTSA full time, this scholarship will
help me to tend to our needs, which will in turn help me
to study and concentrate with less of life's little stresses,"
McKinney's gift will continue to change lives, Halff said.
"How many students will carry her name and her parents'
name on their résumé going forward? Hundreds," she said.
"She will be memorialized in ways that she never imagined."