A Billionaire Gave UMass Dartmouth Graduates $1,000 in Cash, With One Request

A Billionaire Gave UMass Dartmouth Graduates $1,000 in Cash, With One Request

Until the final minutes of their commencement ceremony last Thursday, the 1,200 graduates of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth thought they knew what they would remember most about it: the supremely bad weather during the outdoor ceremony, where they sat drenched and shivering in a torrential rainstorm.

Then, as they prepared to collect their diplomas, their commencement speaker, Rob Hale, a billionaire philanthropist from Boston, returned to the dripping podium. He brought along two cash-stuffed duffel bags, he announced, and would hand every graduate $1,000 as they crossed the stage — $500 to keep for themselves, and $500 to give to any good cause.

“My friends and I were looking at each other like, no way,” Ali McKelvey, one of the students, said. “We were like, this has to be a joke.”

It wasn’t. Mr. Hale, the co-founder and chief executive of Granite Telecommunications, ranks as one of the country’s wealthiest people and most generous benefactors. He and his wife, Karen, gave away $1 million every week in 2022, to both well-known and unheard-of causes.

Still, as he told the graduates at UMass Dartmouth, he has never forgotten the experience of losing everything, when the first company he built went bankrupt in the dot-com crash more than 20 years ago.

“Honestly, have you guys ever met someone who lost a billion dollars before?” Mr. Hale, a part owner of the Boston Celtics, asked in his speech, which he cut short because of the rain.

Since that disaster, he said in an interview this week, he and his wife have found deep joy and satisfaction in giving their money away. In granting college students a chance to experience the same feeling, he said he hoped to light a spark that they will carry with them — even if he had no guarantee that they will honor his request. (He said he believes the vast majority do.)

“If they get to feel that joy themselves, then maybe it becomes something they want to do again, and make part of their own lives,” Mr. Hale, 57, said. “In America and the world, these are times of turmoil, and the more we help each other, the better off we’ll be.”

In the week since a businessman they had never met handed them two damp envelopes onstage — one labeled “GIFT” and the other “GIVE” — the new graduates have packed up dorm rooms, fine-tuned résumés and snapped last campus selfies. They have also pondered where to send what for most will be the largest charitable gift they have ever had the chance to give.

Tony da Costa, a graphic design major who graduated with high honors, considered giving his $500 to a charitable organization but decided instead to hand it over to an acquaintance of his mother, someone he has never met, who is suffering from an illness and struggling to pay bills.

“I felt like giving it to a specific person would feel better,” said Mr. da Costa, 22, who grew up in the town of Dartmouth, on the southern coast of Massachusetts not far from Cape Cod.

Kamryn Kobel, an English major, gave her $500 to the Y.W.C.A. in Worcester, Mass., where she learned to swim as a child, to support its programs for young women and survivors of violence.

Her donation felt like something to be proud of, she said — once it sank in that the envelopes she tucked under her rain poncho contained exactly what Mr. Hale had promised.

“At first, it was like, is there really going to be cash in there?” she said. “And then it was like, oh my God, it’s for real.”

Smaller and less well known than the university’s flagship campus in Amherst, UMass Dartmouth enrolls about 5,500 undergraduates, more than half of them first-generation college students. Eighty percent come from Massachusetts; 80 percent receive financial aid.

It is the fourth Massachusetts college campus in the last four years where Mr. Hale has thrilled graduates with his signature split gift. Each time, he has selected a public school with high concentrations of first-generation and lower-income students who have “worked their tails off to get there,” he said.

Last spring, he distributed the graduation gifts at the Boston campus of UMass, where 66 percent of incoming students identify as people of color.

Last spring at Deerfield Academy, a private high school in western Massachusetts with a more affluent enrollment, he put the focus solely on philanthropy, depositing funds in a school-directed trust so that each graduate could give away $1,000. Mr. Hale, who grew up in nearby Northampton, graduated from Deerfield in 1984 and went on to Connecticut College.

In an interview on Wednesday, he briefly grew emotional describing how one of the UMass Dartmouth graduates had given her $500 to a local group that provides holiday gifts for children in need — a program that had helped her family when she was a child.

“Seeing things like that is very cool,” he said.

Ms. McKelvey, 21, donated her $500 to a women’s shelter in her hometown of Ashland, Mass., west of Boston, inspired by classes she had taken for her interdisciplinary major, health and society, where she learned about the struggles of disadvantaged women.

“I remember sitting in some of those classes and thinking, ‘Someone needs to do something about that,’” she said. “And now I have the opportunity to do something.”

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