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The Joy of Giving: Abby M. O'neill Gives $11 Million to Teachers College

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Abby M. O

Abby M. O'Neill (Photo by Susan Cook)

In 2004, when Abby M. O’Neill was looking to join the board of an institution that “developed its students into extraordinary teachers,” she chose Teachers College. The result has been a classic win-win. “My family and I have been involved in education for many years, so Teachers College was a natural fit for me,” Abby says. TC, meanwhile, has benefited ever since from Abby’s good counsel, friendship and generosity.

Now, in her quest to support “extraordinary teachers,” Abby has made an extraordinary commitment: an $11 million gift to the College for scholarship. The gift reflects both her passion for supporting aspiring teachers who demonstrate a commitment to teaching in New York City and her goal of removing financial barriers to fulfilling that commitment.

“Too many teachers are strapped by debt from graduate school and the high cost of living in metropolitan New York City,” said TC President Susan Fuhrman. “Abby is determined to improve those conditions to keep the best teachers right here in our backyard.”

At a luncheon held in Abby’s honor in May, Fuhrman said that the fellowships created by the gift “speak to the very essence of the TC mission.” She added that “Abby’s support for TC is in her very blood. After all, she is the great-granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller, who also served as a TC Trustee and gave generously to TC at a critical time in our history.”

John D. Rockefeller gave the College $500,000 in 1902 for its endowment, with the caveats that TC commit to paying off its debt and that trustees and other donors match his gift.

Abby was honored in the company of her children and their families, close friends who are affiliated with TC, and other members of the College’s Board, along with faculty who have benefited from her support. Members of the entering cohort of O’Neill Fellows were also on hand.

“In true O’Neill style, Abby made her dreams a reality by establishing a legacy gift that will endow the O’Neill Fellowship in perpetuity,” Fuhrman said. “But with characteristic pragmatism, Abby has also put her vision to work right now with an outright gift that launches the inaugural effort.”

TC will welcome the first class of 12 of 24 O’Neill Fellows, each of whom will receive $35,000, in September 2013. The Fellows will earn dual certification in areas of great need for New York City schools, such as science/inclusive education, elementary education/bilingual, or TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). Through the support of the O’Neill Fellowship Program, these future New York City teachers will graduate virtually debt-free.
The Rockefellers, including Abby, also have had much to do with the history of U.S. involvement in education abroad. Abby’s grandfather John D. Rockefeller Jr. built medical colleges in China. At the behest of the U.S. government, John D. Rockefeller III founded the Japan Society, which has funded education and the arts in Japan. Abby’s uncles Nelson and David Rockefeller conducted extensive diplomacy in Latin America and the Philippines at the request of more than one U.S. president. And Abby herself, in addition to serving as Chairman of Rockefeller Inc., a board member of the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, and Commissioner for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, spent more than 50 years on the Board of International House. She also traveled with the Rockefeller Brothers Fund to Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary to help those nations build civic institutions following the collapse of the Soviet Union. “That trip in particular was a window onto the challenges of becoming a democratic society,” she recalls. “In my view, education is the secret to it all.”

As a TC Board member, Abby believes her role is to provide a forum for growth and change.  She has been a vocal participant at meetings of the Development and Nominating Committees, and has been key in recruiting new board members. She has also directly supported the College through an endowed professorship in Economics and Education, currently held by Thomas Bailey, and gives generously to scholarship aid, faculty support, curriculum development and so much more.

With her latest gift, Abby continues her family’s tradition of “thoughtful and effective philanthropy.” For its part, TC is honored to embrace her as one of its own.
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