Gifts in Action: The Power of Anonymous Giving

12/15/2020 5:19:54 AM Laura Schmitt, Illinois CS

“I didn’t know you could be anonymous but still tell people,” said Larry David to his on-screen wife in an episode of the sometimes cringeworthy HBO comedy “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” David shares this snide remark at a reception celebrating two generous donations to an L.A. museum—one for a new wing named in his honor and the other for a new wing named for Anonymous.

The irony is that everyone at the celebration knows Anonymous is actually Larry’s friend, actor Ted Danson, who basks in false modesty much to Larry’s bewilderment.

Hollywood’s satiric take aside, there are people who donate to causes and no one ever knows their identity.

According to Illinois CS Director of Advancement Steve Hall, alumni and friends have made 14 anonymous gifts to the department since 2018.

“For some people, giving is a very private act and they don’t want anyone else to know,” said Hall. “They value something and they don’t want any kind of recognition in return for their gift. It’s the way they get the most out of giving.”

Alumnus Ron Cytron (MS CS ’82, PhD CS ’84) had a dear friend who cared deeply about students. In his/her will, the friend bequeathed a sizable sum of money, instructing Cytron to endow a computer science undergraduate scholarship at the school of his choice. The only major condition was complete anonymity for the donor.

Computer Science Visionary Scholarship recipient Rose Dinh (right) was recognized at the Fall 2019 Celebration of Excellence.
Computer Science Visionary Scholarship recipient Rose Dinh (right) was recognized at the Fall 2019 Celebration of Excellence.

Illinois CS became the beneficiary of the anonymous donor’s generosity, as Cytron and his wife Betsy established the Ron Cytron Family Computer Science Visionary Scholarship at Illinois to honor his friend.

“An educator and staunch supporter of higher ed, my friend was very humble and did not want it known about their role in the gift,” Cytron said. “My friend did have funding to go through graduate school, and that scholarship made all the difference in their life.”

The Cytron Family CS Visionary Scholarship enables the department and The Grainger College of Engineering to offer renewable funding to top students who may have offers from other prestigious schools, particularly students who are under-represented in CS and may not be able to afford school without aid.

Another anonymous donor recently contributed to the Donald B. Gillies Memorial Lecture, which brings highly distinguished researchers to campus for presentations and networking opportunities with students and colleagues. Invited speakers have included Turing Award winners and National Academy members.

The Gillies Memorial Lecture was established in the mid-1970s, shortly after the event’s namesake died unexpectedly at the age of 45 from a rare viral myocarditis. Digital Equipment Corporation and many of Gillies’ friends, colleagues, and family established the lecture series to honor the Canadian-born computer scientist and mathematician who pioneered the educational use and networking possibilities of computers.

Margo Seltzer, the Canada 150 Research Chair in Computer Systems and Cheriton Family Chair in Computer Science at the University of British Columbia, gave the 2019 Donald B. Gillies Memorial Lecture.
Margo Seltzer, the Canada 150 Research Chair in Computer Systems and Cheriton Family Chair in Computer Science at the University of British Columbia, gave the 2019 Donald B. Gillies Memorial Lecture.

His son and Illinois alumnus Don Gillies (MS CS ’90, PhD CS ’93), a senior software engineer at Data Bricks in the San Francisco Bay area, is grateful for a recent anonymous gift in support of the long-running lecture series.

“The lecture series is an educational event, and my dad was really focused on getting kids interested in computers the last five to 10 years of his life,” said Don, recalling how his dad took a detour on a family vacation to Canada once to pick up a newly developed Fortran compiler from the University of Waterloo so he could implement it at Illinois. The compiler was fast, which allowed the university to offer programming classes to non-CS students for the first time.

“It’s very gratifying to hear that other people have appreciated the lectures,” added Don, who attended one of the first lectures as a high school student and met Donald Knuth, the Turing Award winner and author of The Art of Computer Programming book series. “Later I attended other lectures as a graduate student. To this day when I meet someone from Illinois CS I encourage them to attend the lectures because they really are inspiring.”

Of course, there’s another side to the anonymous giving coin.

“We like it when donors let us know who they are because their gift could inspire their classmates or colleagues to also give,” said Hall.

In fact, Don Gillies has proudly donated to the lecture series over the last three decades. Don was 13 when his dad passed away and he knew little about computers, but some of his dad’s CS and mathematics colleagues invited him to the lectures and provided him other opportunities to learn about computing.

“I want my gifts to recognize what the Gillies Memorial Lecture and U of I did for me,” he said. “The gifts are a way to pay back the debt I owe the university. I’m also glad that other donors enjoyed the lectures and remember them, too.”