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$25 million gift aims to ensure Say Yes scholarships exist forever

One of the largest single gifts an individual ever bestowed upon the region is for the kids of the City of Buffalo.

A $25 million gift being announced Friday serves as a down payment to help ensure students in Buffalo have free college tuition for generations to come, courtesy of a Western New Yorker who has always had a soft spot for education and kids determined to succeed despite the odds.

The "challenge" gift is for Say Yes Buffalo, the not-for-profit that covers tuition at state colleges and universities for Buffalo students who graduate high school. The donation  kicks off a new five-year fundraising campaign with a huge splash.

The goal is to raise $100 million for an endowment so that the Say Yes scholarship – viewed as a game changer for Buffalo since it began in 2012 – will last in perpetuity.

But the man behind the gift will remain a mystery to the countless kids who will one day benefit from his largesse.

He asked to remain anonymous.

"Many of us ask ourselves, 'What can we do?' " said the donor, who agreed to speak to The Buffalo News. "Right now, I feel a financial responsibility to help rebuild my community."

"I sincerely don't see this as me being a wildly generous person," he said. "I think there's an ethical responsibility. I have the means and to sit here and do nothing would be unethical."

David Rust, executive director of Say Yes Buffalo, called the gift a beautiful testament to the belief in both the potential and ability of all students in Buffalo.

"I find it inspiring and powerful that he is doing this with a desire to remain anonymous," Rust said. "He doesn't want any recognition and wants Say Yes Buffalo to continue to be a community wide effort to support our students and not about one man or woman.

"We hope this inspires others to invest in our scholarship fund and to continue to build the intellectual infrastructure in our city," Rust said.

The gift comes with the stipulation that it be matched by at least $25 million in local donations by 2023. The remaining $50 million for the endowment must be raised through a combination of local, state and national supporters, also by 2023.

"We are hopeful that with this incredible $25 million gift, coupled with the support of our more than 400 donors, we have the momentum needed to reach this new goal," said Alphonso O'Neil-White, chair of the Say Yes Buffalo Scholarship. "It is an exciting moment for the future of post-secondary education of Buffalo youth."

Money manager George Weiss founded Say Yes in Philadelphia some 30 years ago and brought it to Buffalo in 2012 with the goal of increasing college access by eliminating one of the biggest barriers: cost.

Since its inaugural Class of 2013, Say Yes Buffalo has awarded more than $7.4 million in scholarships to support more than 5,000 students who have graduated from either a Buffalo Public School or a city charter school.

The nonprofit pays for tuition at New York's colleges and universities, but only what's not covered by state, federal and institutional aid designated toward tuition.

Students of Buffalo public and charter schools are eligible for the "last dollar" scholarship for up to a year after graduation and guaranteed 65 to 100 percent tuition depending on how long they have been enrolled in school in Buffalo. College fees aren't covered.

The organization also partners with more than 100 private colleges and universities, but those agreements come with some stipulations, including a $5,000 annual cap for families earning over $75,000.

The arrival of Say Yes has been viewed as a game-changer in Buffalo, not just by families staring at the rising cost of college but by a city in need of a more educated workforce for the new medical and high-tech economy it is trying to create.

However, O'Neil-White explained that, since its inception, the focus has been on the short-term: a 10-year goal of raising $29 million to secure scholarships through the high school graduating Class of 2022.

Now that Say Yes is nearing that goal, it is embarking on an endowment campaign to ensure that eligible Buffalo students have their college tuition covered for years to come. The interest earned on the $100 million endowment is expected to cover the annual cost of the Say Yes scholarships and other assistance.

The $25 million gift would be one of the single largest to the Buffalo area from an individual donor.

In 2011, a physician who graduated from the University at Buffalo medical school bequested $40 million to his alma mater, but also wished to remain anonymous.

In 2015, UB renamed its medical school in honor of a $30 million gift from Jeremy M. Jacobs Sr., the billionaire head of the Delaware North Co.

Most recently, Jeffrey E. Gundlach, the billionaire bond trader and Western New York native, gave $52.5 million for expansion of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

But if you tried to guess the Say Yes donor, you'd probably be wrong.

He's not a household name.

"Financially," he said. "I'm not little - but I'm not big. I'm looking for big donors to step up with me."

He's a businessman who built his wealth in the medical and tech industries, and is now a venture capitalist in his early 60s who's proud to call the Buffalo region home.

A native of Western New York, he went to college out of state and was a good student, but not great. While he worked summers to help pay for college, his father footed the remainder of the tuition bill and he graduated debt free.

He wants to do the same for other kids.

He has given money to a number of other local charities and organizations but nothing this generous. He has been involved with Say Yes since its beginnings and views educating Buffalo's next generation as a "core ingredient" for this region's economy to thrive.

He loves Buffalo. He loves its "polite and friendly" demeanor, its don't-quit attitude, and the spirit it shows to pick itself up and come back again next year when the ball sails Wide Right.

He tells stories of others he knows who didn't have a lot of opportunities growing up, but went on to college determined to succeed – and did.

"I really enjoy the challenge of trying to understand who a student is," he said. "'Where did you come from? Where are you trying to get to? And what's your method to get there?'"

"I like the belief that, 'If I can just get myself educated, something good is going to come out of this,'" he said.

He approached Rust last fall about the $25 million gift to jump-start the endowment.

Rust called the donor a "kind, humble" man and said the children of Buffalo are blessed to have him.

"Just as impressive," Rust said, "is that fact that not only does this individual give his treasure, but he also spends time personally mentoring our scholars and sharing his life experiences with them."

What does he tell them?

While he may have not have been the best student in college, there was no way he wasn't going to finish.

"That's what our kids hear from me," the donor said. "Don't quit."

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