Hunter College Donation Is Record Gift
August 25, 2013, 10:07 p.m. ET
Hunter College Donation Is Record Gift
Toby and Leon Cooperman Commit $25 Million to Alma Mater
By MELANIE GRAYCE WEST
They were Hunter College sweethearts and now they are the biggest ever to the college.
Last week, Toby and Leon G. Cooperman committed $25 million to Hunter College, part of the City University of New York.
The Coopermans, both from the Bronx, met in French class. She helped him with his French studies and, later, he served as vice president when she became class president. Their first date was the junior prom. She asked him to take her to the dance."I went free because I was president of the class. So, the price was right," Mrs. Cooperman said dryly during a recent interview. To this, Mr. Cooperman nodded in agreement.
Mr. Cooperman is chairman and chief executive of Omega Advisors, a New York hedge fund. Mrs. Cooperman is recently retired from a career as a special-education specialist at the Early Childhood Learning Center in Chatham, N.J.
The couple, who graduated and married in 1964, says that their gift to Hunter is partly to celebrate their upcoming 50th wedding anniversary and their 50th Hunter reunion. Mr. Cooperman says that he and his wife are grateful for Hunter because they got a first-class education, he in chemistry and she in history, for $24 a semester.
Mr. Cooperman, a billionaire, says he feels that there are four options with great wealth: consume your money, leave it to your kids, lose half of it to the government or recycle it back to society.
Mr. Cooperman is on something of a recycling kick. Last year, he gave $25 million to Columbia Business School, which he also attended. Mr. Cooperman hinted that there are future gifts coming. His family's foundation has some $150 million in assets, according to public documents.
The $25 million to Hunter will be split between a scholarship program and the college's library. The named scholarship program, seeded with $10 million, will provide money to gifted students who have demonstrated need but exhausted all other sources of financial aid. Hunter's president, Jennifer Raab, said that the scholarship fund "is going to be absolutely a game change" in terms of recruiting and supporting bright students.
The other $15 million of the gift will go toward the Leon and Toby Cooperman Library because, as Mr. Cooperman put it, he's "conforming to the needs of the college." With the Cooperman's recent gift, the $45 million library is short $9 million from completion, said Ms. Raab.
The Coopermans are a rags-to-riches story. They attended public schools and went to Hunter's Bronx campus, which is now the separate Lehman College. Mr. Cooperman grew up with his brother in a one-bedroom apartment. His father, who immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 13, was a plumber who died while on the job. Mrs. Cooperman's father sold bed linens.
Mr. Cooperman almost became a dentist. He finished his college credits in three years and decided to use his senior year to jump-start a degree in dentistry. His dental career ended in just eight days-it was the wrong path, he says. He begged Hunter's president to come back so he could continue his undergraduate education. He took 10 classes in economics and got A grades in every class. He then went on to Columbia Business School.
Mr. Cooperman attributes his success to luck and intuition, but he was also driven and admits to being frugal. When he began his 25-year career at Goldman Sachs in 1967, he had a 6-month-old son and a negative net worth because of student loans. Despite his enormous success, he watches the thermostat and changes his own light bulbs. His value system is that he doesn't ask people to do things he wouldn't do himself.
"I don't like wasting money, basically," says Mr. Cooperman.
"If you asked me when we got married did I see this in my future, I would have to say no," said Mrs. Cooperman of her husband and of the ability to make such a generous gift to their alma mater. "Although, my mother called him a wheeler-dealer."
Write to Melanie Grayce West at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared August 26, 2013, on page A23 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Hunter College Donation Is Record Gift.