(Photo by Erick Frick)
IT WAS AN ACCIDENT of fate that brought Robert Morris to UB in the fall of 1964.
A literal accident of fate.
That summer, he had been working at a Buffalo industrial plant, saving money for his junior year at Notre Dame University. Then one day, while he was cleaning a chemical spill, the solvent ignited, surrounding him in flames.
Morris spent a month in the hospital recuperating from his injuries, which included third-degree burns on both arms. When he learned that he’d need twice-weekly treatments for several months to come, he knew that returning to South Bend wasn’t feasible.
So the Williamsville native transferred to UB and never looked back.
“Notre Dame has a great tradition, but in those days the whole place was run much more tightly. So coming to UB, where you set your own schedule and did your own thing without that micromanagement, was quite an interesting change for me—one that I actually enjoyed.”
Four decades after receiving his degree in economics, Morris—who recently retired as chief investment officer of Lord, Abbett & Co., one of the country’s oldest money management firms—has returned to campus to invest heavily in his alma mater. As the first donor to direct a gift to UB 2020, the institution-wide plan for achieving enduring academic excellence, he has emerged as one of the university’s foremost philanthropic leaders: an alumnus who bolsters causes that he’s passionate about and motivates others to do likewise.
“He really follows up with what his interests are,” says Bruce McCombe, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “And his generosity is not only generosity in giving his financial resources. It’s also generosity of his time. He’s here on campus many times during the year, and he’s also working behind the scenes to increase the philanthropy of others. This is real evidence of his commitment to UB.”
As it turns out, Morris’ philanthropy is fueled by two opposing sentiments: nostalgia for his time at UB and a conviction that the university’s best days lie ahead.
It was at UB, after all, where Morris met his wife, Carol. It’s also where he found his calling, changing his major to economics after a professor warned him of the dim prospects for a chemist entering the job market without a PhD. (“That was too much time at a lab bench to interest me,” he says.) Moreover, it’s the place where his parents received master’s degrees in education, and where the elder of his two sons earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in architecture.
“There are so many ties to the university that when somebody says ‘UB’ I can think of a lot of different connections,” Morris says. “I really enjoyed my time here.”
After graduating from UB in 1967, Morris received a master’s degree in economics from Northeastern University and returned to Western New York to teach science at Williamsville North High School. From there, his career in finance took off. After five years with Niagara Share Corporation, he and his family moved to Rhode Island and then to New York’s Westchester County, where he has lived since 1978. In March, after spending 35 years in the investment industry, he retired from Lord Abbett, an investment firm that manages $120 billion in assets.
Throughout his career, Morris has followed UB’s progress. “One of the things I was very excited about years ago was the vision of the State University that Nelson Rockefeller carried broadly,” he says, referring to the New York governor who spent millions building up SUNY’s research centers. “I’d like to see us get back to this quest for excellence that we were targeting in the 1960s.”
Recognizing the pivotal role that individual donors play in the equation, particularly in the face of dwindling state support, Morris embraces his role as benefactor and fund-raising strategist. “When you understand the higher education system in this country, you realize that there’s a huge role for private philanthropy to leverage the resources in the system. That gets my juices flowing. I like to look for creative ways to do that.”
Renowned soprano Laura Aikin, BFA ’86, (holding score) with graduate student Jenece Gerber during October 2007 master class in Lippes Concert Hall. Aikin—a Buffalo native now based in Berlin—also performed at dedicatory concert for the Robert G. and Carol L. Morris Center for 21st Century Music. (Photo by Douglas Levere BA '89)
To that end, Morris has significantly financed a number of departmental initiatives and other projects over the past several years, among them: a new sports performance center, the Department of Music and its Robert G. and Carol L. Morris Center for 21st Century Music, UB 2020’s “strategic strength” in artistic expression and performing arts, the Humanities Institute, and an emergency scholarship fund for undergraduates in the arts and sciences.
Considering that so much philanthropy benefits scientific and technological pursuits, UB president John B. Simpson is impressed that Morris’ largesse leans toward the humanities. “In my view, attention in universities is often around areas that have the potential for economic development or for raising major grant support. Yet at the same time a sophisticated view, I believe, understands that there is a place of primacy for the humanities at the core of higher education. I’m delighted to find somebody who shares my viewpoint in recognition of the critical place of humanities in a university like this.”
Since he has reacquainted himself with the university, Morris has consistently gravitated toward causes that reflect his interests and jibe with his philosophy of giving. Instead of donating to a massive outfit that funnels contributions into administrative expenses, he prefers to see the results of his philanthropy: shiny barbells in a weight-training room. State-of-the-art acoustic panels in a renovated music hall. The smile of a student whose debts have been resolved. As he puts it: “A little bit of magic can go a long way.”
“You have to start with the basic material. This is about the kids and the interactions between students and faculty,” says Morris, who serves as chair of the UB Foundation Development Committee, Foundation trustee, and committee chair for the College of Arts and Sciences’ Dean’s Advisory Council.
“Bricks and mortars are nice—and important in the total picture—but at the end of the day it’s about helping students,” he says. “And it’s about capturing a little of that old enthusiasm and remembering why those were probably four of the best years of your life.
“It is the American story, I think—the opportunity that kids can have in changing their destinies. And that educational opportunity should be afforded at the highest level to the largest number of young people as possible.”
Morris’ belief in the transformative power of education can be traced back to his parents. His father, Donald, who spent the bulk of his career in mechanical engineering, taught science early in his career and was, for a time, the curriculum coordinator at Williamsville South High School, where Morris graduated in 1962. His mother, Ruth, an English teacher, was responsible for developing the state’s first formalized reading program and served as the Amherst School District’s reading coordinator.
Growing up in Williamsville, Morris associated with several young musicians, which helps explain how he developed a taste for classical music when most of his peers were gravitating to Chubby Checker or the Drifters. He attended school with Carol Wincenc, who became a world-renowned flutist. He walked to school with William Christie, who would found Les Arts Florissants, one of Europe’s most respected baroque music ensembles.
“I had a 78 record collection that had a lot of the classical recordings of Ravel, Beethoven, Mozart—not the kind of stuff that would have attracted a large crowd,” Morris says with a laugh.
In college, he frequented downtown Buffalo music clubs, where he saw Dizzy Gillespie and other jazz legends perform. When he and his wife lived in Western New York, their favorite night out was taking in a Buffalo Philharmonic concert.
That’s why one of the couple’s first philanthropic endeavors at UB was supporting Slee Sinfonietta, the university’s professional chamber music orchestra. Their generosity has afforded Slee’s musicians recording and residency opportunities, as well as the ability to expand their concert schedule from one annually to four.
“The Sinfonietta wouldn’t have been sustainable for the first few years without Bob,” says Slee founder David Felder, Birge-Cary Professor of Composition and director of the Center for 21st Century Music. “The support allowed us to create this flagship ensemble, to plan for future seasons and keep it going over the years.”
Felder, who has known Morris for four years, likens the philanthropist to another Buffalo native, NBC Meet the Press host Tim Russert.
“He’s a brilliant, successful man who’s still a Buffalo guy. He and Carol are Buffalonians in the best sense of that description. There’s no pretension and there’s a strong desire to be of help. They embody the best of the Buffalo spirit.”
A former reporter for the Buffalo News, Nicole Peradotto is a freelance writer/editor.