Ivy League Fan
Civic leader has degrees from Yale and Harvard, but devotes much of his time to the betterment of UB
Story by Blair Boone
It's hard to imagine why Walsh would feel guilty. His past and present service to UB is far-reaching. He's currently a member of the UB Foundation, and served on the UB Council for 17 years. He also serves on the College of Arts and Sciences Dean's Advisory Council. And today, he's chairing a key committee for the most important and ambitious fund-raising campaign in the university's history, leading the drive to raise $10 million for UB's Honors Program in The Campaign for UB: Generation to Generation.
Why the guilt? As part of those years of service, "I've enjoyed so many free dinners at the university's expense," says Walsh, smiling, "I feel I ought to give something back."
Walsh's time, energy and devotion have hardly gone unnoticed. In 1999, he received the Walter P. Cooke Award, given to nonalumni for meritorious contributions to the university. And in 2000, he received the UB President's Medal during the October convocation ceremony.
As chairman and CEO of Walsh Duffield, a Buffalo insurance company, Walsh maintains a commitment to community service both broad and deep. He has served on numerous local boards and chaired several, including the boards of Children's Hospital, Nichols School, the National Conference, the American Red Cross and the AAA, and served as acting chair of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. A former college hockey player and youth hockey coach, he is cochairing this year's Frozen Four NCAA hockey tournament, and also the drive to complete the renovation of the Darwin D. Martin House, one of architect Frank Lloyd Wright's most famous residential designs and a Buffalo architectural treasure.
Of course, there's more than guilt at work here, just as there's much more to Walsh than meets the eye. Unassuming and soft-spoken, Walsh nevertheless conveys a fierce passion for learning. He earned a bachelor's degree from Yale, a law degree from Harvard, and has a strong belief in the importance of quality educational institutions.
It is precisely that personal passion for educationand a deeply felt sense of obligation to Buffalo, his lifelong homethat propels Walsh to help UB achieve the kind of excellence he experienced firsthand at two of the world's most prestigious universities.
"I live in Buffalo, so UB is my university in my community," says Walsh. "I love Yale and Harvard, and I've seen the tradition of alumni philanthropy at those institutions. So I have both an intellectual and emotional belief in what can be accomplished for UB."
It's no surprise that, while his support for UB has been wide-ranging, he's focusing his efforts for the Campaign for UB on the university's Honors Program, a crucial component in UB's drive to be recognized among the nation's academically elite institutions.
Founded in 1981, the Honors Program aims to attract the most intellectually outstanding high school students to UB by providing much-needed scholarship assistance. Today, the program supports over 200 students annuallya more than tenfold increase since the program's inception. The 2002 freshman class includes 262 honors students.
Emphasizing UB's commitment to academic excellence, the program provides these exceptional students with an enriched academic experience, fostering close contact between students and leading faculty, and offering both students and faculty a unique opportunity to explore the boundaries of learning while immersing themselves in a wide variety of academic disciplines.
According to Walsh, that student-faculty interaction is critical to enhancing UB's academic status. Calling the opportunity to teach extremely bright, motivated students the "glue" that keeps promising younger faculty at UB, Walsh also cites the opportunities honors students have to work closely with senior faculty as a key to energizing both groups.
These close relationships between honors students and outstanding faculty also help the program achieve another, and perhaps its most important, goal: to instill in students a lifelong love of learning.
"If we all think seriously about who has impressed us during our lives," says Walsh, "those people have often been highly educated and have exhibited a passion for the welfare of others." Along with the influence of faculty on the students, Walsh also points to the positive effects honors students have on their peers both within and outside the Honors Program. "Having over 200 honors students in each undergraduate class can affect the morale and interest not only of teachers, but also of their fellow students," he says, adding, "The Honors Program affords the greatest opportunity for UB to achieve preeminence at the undergraduate level."
Walsh himself has been very favorably impressed by his own interactions with students from UB's Honors Program. "I'm impressed by how bright kids are today," he says. As a Yale graduate, he brings a unique perspective to evaluating academically distinguished students. Each year, he interviews local applicants to his alma mater. UB's honors students, he says, hold their own in the comparison.
Admissions data bear him out. Many UB honors students are also accepted at top private universities. The scholarships provided by the Honors Program are often the deciding factor for the students who choose UB, making it possible for the university to compete successfully for these "best and brightest" students.
The Honors Program is also perhaps the most telling and well-known example of the power of private gifts to UB. Over the past eight years, the program has received $7.2 million from an anonymous donorwho Walsh calls "this angel"to establish and maintain the Distinguished Honors Scholars Program, which provides full financial support for up to 20 especially promising students each year.
Walsh stresses the importance of private giving in helping UB reach its goal of being recognized nationally and internationally for academic excellence. "If you want to differentiate yourself academically, you have to provide money to attract these students," he says. "We have an obligation to raise additional private funds to build on what the wonderful generosity of the anonymous donor has already accomplished."
Currently, the Honors Program has received over $5.8 million in gifts toward its campaign goal. Walsh notes that because the program started small and has been in existence for only 21 years, there's no large alumni base with direct ties to the program. In addition, many honors graduates are still youngthough they're rapidly making their mark on the world at large.
He recalls attending a graduation ceremony several years ago at which Daphne Bascom, one of the program's first graduates, spoke movingly of how her Honors Program scholarship made possible an education she could not otherwise have afforded. As she spoke, Walsh noticed there were two people on the podium wearing the distinctive ermine-trimmed academic robes of Oxford UniversityBascom and then-Provost Thomas Headrick. After graduating from UB, Bascom had gone on to earn a Ph.D. from Oxford and a medical degree from the University of Pittsburgh. Today she is assistant professor of otolaryngology, head and neck surgery, at Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals of Cleveland, Ohio.
"I remember thinking, if UB can turn out graduates like this, they must be proud," says Walsh.
On the importance of gifts to a program that will provide many more outstanding students with the education they need to reach their dreams, Walsh is once again simple and direct.
"There is no other investment more important than education," says Walsh. "It's the only one that lasts a lifetime."
Blair Boone, Ph.D. '84, is a Buffalo-based freelance writer.