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The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

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 McKinney's classroom

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 will."

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."

Modest beginnings

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.

Mary E. McKinney's estate gift to UTSA included three parcels of ranch land in Frio and Atascosa counties. The land sits atop the Eagle Ford Shale, considered to be the most significant U.S. oilfield discovery in the last 40 years.

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 nearly $250,000.

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 give anonymously.

"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."

Hot-pink lipstick

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," she said.

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 was special."

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 cat, Francois.

"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," it reads.

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."

—Lety Laurel


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Current Issue: Winter 2010

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