It was a cold Sunday evening in January 1902. I. A. O’Shaughnessy was a 16-year-old freshman at St. John’s University, a small Catholic college in central Minnesota. He and two friends had hidden a keg out in the woods. They decided to skip Sunday vespers. Instead, they snuck out to the woods and knocked back a few beers. When they returned to campus, they were caught. O’Shaughnessy was promptly expelled.
Despondent, the young man boarded an eastbound train. On the way to his parents’ house in Stillwater, Minnesota, he decided to stop in St. Paul. Unsure what to do, he walked from the railroad depot to the College of St. Thomas. While crossing campus, he ran into a priest. The two struck up a conversation. Sensing the boy’s distress, the priest offered O’Shaughnessy a hot meal in the dining hall.
“Was the expulsion justified?” the priest asked him over dinner.
“Absolutely,” O’Shaughnessy replied. “I knew the rule and the penalty. I broke the rule and got caught. They had to fire me.”
The priest was Fr. John Dolphin, president of the college. Impressed with the young man’s integrity, he offered O’Shaughnessy admission to St. Thomas.
O’Shaughnessy got a second chance. He never forgot it.
“So I Became Ignatius”
Ignatius Aloysius O’Shaughnessy was born on July 31, 1885, the last of John and Mary Ann Milan O’Shaughnessy’s 13 children. The family lived in Stillwater, a timber boomtown near the Wisconsin border. His father was a native of Ireland. He made boots for lumberjacks.
“By the time I arrived,” O’Shaughnessy later explained to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, “mother had run fresh out of all the regular names like John, James, and Joseph. Being a good Catholic, [she] went to the calendar of saints”—July 31 is the Feast of St. Ignatius Loyola—“so I became Ignatius.” O’Shaughnessy took the name Aloysius years later, at his confirmation. “Aloysius is the patron saint of boys,” he continued, “and the sister who taught me at St. Michael’s grade school had that name. I liked her.”
As a boy, young Ignatius attended local schools and labored in the sawmills. The work toughened him up, helping to make him a standout on the gridiron. A gifted athlete, O’Shaughnessy played football at both St. John’s and St. Thomas. (In fact, in his one semester at St. John’s, he rushed for 76 yards against St. Thomas, leading his team to a 16-0 win.) At St. Thomas, O’Shaughnessy was a star halfback; his senior year, he was named team captain.
After graduating from St. Thomas, O’Shaughnessy moved to Texas, where he joined two of his older brothers in the insurance business. He was successful enough to open his own insurance company, winning clients throughout Texas, Colorado, and, later, Mexico. With the outbreak of the First World War, he leased a factory in Kansas and manufactured tires.
A few years later, he spotted an opportunity—and seized it. On February 2, 1917, O’Shaughnessy established the Globe Oil & Refining Company of Oklahoma. He traversed the Great Plains in pursuit of black gold. He had the touch. O’Shaughnessy pumped, refined, transported, and sold oil. He bought, leased, and traded oil fields. He was equally well known for his aggressiveness toward competitors as for his kindness toward employees.
In 1926, O’Shaughnessy created Lario Oil, which initially operated throughout Kansas. A year later, Lario tapped the Oxford Pool, in Sumner County, which proved to be one of the richest deposits in the state and is still pumping crude today. In 1942, he organized Don Oil, which was one of the first entrants in the Texas Permian Basin. For a brief period, the “King of the Wildcatters” was the largest independent oil producer in the United States.
“What More Do I Need?”
O’Shaughnessy always kept his fortune in perspective. He attended Mass daily, and counted Catholic priests and nuns among his closest friends. “I’ve got good health, two suits of clothes, and I eat three meals a day,” said O’Shaughnessy. “What more do I need?” He and his wife, Lillian, raised five children in a modest four-bedroom home in St. Paul. Once settled in, they never moved.
O’Shaughnessy did, however, delight in sharing his wealth. (“Money is like manure,” he was known to say, “it doesn’t do any good unless you spread it around.”) He credited much of his success to Fr. Dolphin’s unprompted act of kindness. It gave O’Shaughnessy a lifelong sympathy for the underdog—and inspired an enduring devotion to Catholic higher education.
“The bond of loyalty between any alumnus and his alma mater depends primarily on whether the school did for him in his youth what it promised to do,” said O’Shaughnessy in 1959, at the dedication of the O’Shaughnessy Library at St. Thomas. “On this happy public occasion, I can say with pride that in my youth on this campus, this vision of what was possible, for a man to attain by means of effort and grace, was put before my youthful imagination.”
By the time O’Shaughnessy spoke those words, that “bond of loyalty” was visible across the campus. He had already funded the construction of O’Shaughnessy Hall (1939), O’Shaughnessy Stadium (1940), and Albertus Magnus Hall (1947). (In 1968, he would also provide lead financing for the O’Shaughnessy Educational Center.) During his lifetime, he donated a total of nearly $8.5 million—worth altogether an estimated $90 million today—to the College of St. Thomas.
O’Shaughnessy supported a number of other colleges; in fact, he was believed to be the country’s single largest benefactor of Catholic higher education. He gave generously to the University of Notre Dame, St. Catherine University, Loyola University, and DePaul University, as well as to non-Catholic schools like Carleton College and Hamline University.
“Dozens of other organizations,” notes Doug Hennes in the Winter 2007 issue of St. Thomas Magazine, “ranging from orphanages to hospitals to orchestras, received checks from him. Without the O’Shaughnessys, one recipient wrote in 1972, ‘the St. Paul Opera is a mere whisper.’” Among O’Shaughnessy’s many notable gifts was a $4.5 million grant to finance the construction of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute for Theological Studies near Jerusalem. Pope Paul VI credited the donation with helping fulfill a “lifelong dream.”
To the Next Generation
In 1941, O’Shaughnessy established the I. A. O’Shaughnessy Foundation to bring structure and continuity to his charitable giving. It was very much a personal enterprise. O’Shaughnessy himself made all decisions regarding grants. In philanthropy as in business, he was constantly attentive to opportunities—and never hesitant to act.
When O’Shaughnessy passed away in 1973 at the age of 88, his five children—Lawrence, John, Donald, Eileen, and Marion—became the directors of the foundation. Their father established it with an expansive mission: to give toward religious, charitable, scientific, or educational programs that “promote the well-being of mankind.”
“He left the mission broad,” says Tim O’Shaughnessy, current president of the foundation and one of Ignatius Aloysius’ oldest grandchildren. “He had confidence the generations would do the right thing with the legacy he left them.”
Initially, the O’Shaughnessy Foundation hewed closely to the organizations closest to the founder’s heart. But O’Shaughnessy had encouraged his children to develop their own charitable interests, and, in time, the board began to feel comfortable making the independent decisions that their founder had encouraged. For years, the families of each of the five directors were allowed to control one-fifth of the annual grants.
About a decade ago, under the leadership of second-generation president Lawrence O’Shaughnessy, the directors decided to re-examine their grantmaking procedures. Given the foundation’s assets (worth more than $70 million today), they wanted to ensure that they were putting their resources to their best possible use. As a result of their deliberations, the directors decided to divide the grantmaking responsibilities. Now, half the giving consists of discretionary grants from the five branches of the family. The other half is allocated by the board itself, usually in the form of fewer, larger donations.
“It’s the difference between charity and philanthropy,” Tim O’Shaughnessy says. “If you want to pick a particular area to have an impact, you need to have larger grants and more focus on finding people who can really get the job done.”
Revising the grantmaking strategy had another effect, Tim notes. It inspired the board to renew its focus, to return to first things, and to reconsider the life and legacy of Ignatius Aloysius O’Shaughnessy.
This process of re-examination and renewal began with a family retreat to gather and share ideas. Next, the foundation established a planning team—composed of board and family members and led by a consultant—to explore and incorporate the ideas aired at the family retreat. Over a series of meetings, the planning committee hammered out a series of goals, policies, and procedures.
Throughout the process, Tim worried that it would be difficult for the board to agree on a unifying theme. “I never thought we’d get 10 Irishmen to agree on anything.”
A Renewed Focus
Mirabile dictu, the board came to a unifying theme fairly easily. Henceforward, the O’Shaughnessy Foundation would be dedicated to K–12 education for disadvantaged children.
“My grandfather was a great supporter of education—for the most part, Catholic education,” says John O’Shaughnessy, chair of the board grants committee. “Grants for education, especially for disadvantaged kids, almost always pass what I call the ‘I. A. sniff test.’” Indeed, as John suggests, the focus on education calls to mind a certain working-class 16-year-old, disheveled and frightened, rambling across the campus of St. Thomas College, worrying about the future.
Among the first fruits of the O’Shaughnessy Foundation’s renewed focus was a $1 million, five-year grant to the NativityMiguel Network. The NativityMiguel Network today consists of 64 faith-based (principally Catholic) elementary and middle schools, serving some 4,900 disadvantaged students in 27 states and the District of Columbia. The grant provided for professional training and development for school leaders, teachers, and graduate support directors. Its timing struck network executives as almost providential.
“It was a very important grant for us in our early years as a network,” says NativityMiguel executive director Mary Claire Ryan. “It really allowed the overall strengthening of our schools for the underserved. I think Ignatius Aloysius would have been pleased.” Tim O’Shaughnessy keeps close tabs on the foundation’s support; he serves on the board of directors at the NativityMiguel Network.
Gena Davis Watkins of the Institute for Student Achievement (ISA) has likewise seen the foundation’s renewed focus firsthand. The New York–based ISA is a nonprofit that works in partnership with public school districts to turn around low-performing urban schools. Following a site visit to post-Katrina Louisiana, the O’Shaughnessy Foundation awarded ISA a $300,000 multi-year grant to help launch the East Baton Rouge (EBR) Laboratory Academy.
In May 2009, the O’Shaughnessy Foundation’s board met in New York City to visit another ISA school in the Bronx. “This visit wasn’t a mere look-and-see,” says Watkins. “The entire board was engaged and knowledgeable. They asked questions of school leaders, teachers, and students. They clearly did their homework.”
The board paid a visit to EBR Lab in February. “It says a lot about that foundation that the whole family is involved and engaged and committed to seeing their philanthropic dollars in action,” Watkins says. “If you could replicate the I. A. O’Shaughnessy Foundation 10 times,” she adds, “my life would be wonderful.”
“He Is Our Common Denominator”
Today, the board is working to integrate the fourth generation of O’Shaughnessys into the foundation. Kaki O’Shaughnessy, the 29th and youngest grandchild of the patriarch, is heading the effort as the chair of the leadership development committee. Through a study of family foundations, the committee found that it is usually the fourth generation that loses sight of the founder’s intent. After all, great-grandchildren generally lack personal memories and emotional attachment to the founder. “One good way to prevent [the loss of donor intent],” she says, “is to engage the fourth generation the right way.”
In 2004, the leadership development committee reached out to all 72 fourth-generation descendants of O’Shaughnessy. They were introduced to the foundation and invited to join its work. Two years later, two regional meetings were convened in order to educate them about the life and legacy of their great-grandfather and the work of his foundation. They were also invited to start thinking about what they considered grantmaking priorities.
The fourth generation got right to work. They decided to focus on domestic education and international microfinance. In 2007, the board authorized an allocation of $100,000 in grants recommended by the program participants. The board has continued the process, and will be adding new members of the fourth generation to the program.
“I hope that, a century from now, the O’Shaughnessy Foundation is still run by the family, not by staff,” says John O’Shaughnessy. “And I hope that the family continues to educate each new generation, so that the O’Shaughnessys continue to honor the memory and intent of Ignatius Aloysius.” Kaki agrees. “The only reason we’re all here is because of grandfather,” she says. “He is our common denominator.”
Marshall Allen is a frequent contributor to Philanthropy.