Pittsburgh Theological Seminary bequeathed $20 million
January 28, 2015 12:00 AM
Pittsburgh Theological Seminary
Robert Thomson's $20 million donation is the largest in Pittsburgh Theological Seminary's history.
Hicks Memorial Chapel at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in East Liberty.
By Peter Smith / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh Theological Seminary has received the largest donation in its history, more than $20 million from a lifelong Presbyterian and longtime insurance agent who talked little of himself and much of the generations of students he had supported through scholarships.
The seminary announced Tuesday the bequest of $20.25 million by Robert Thomson, whose Thomson & Sproull Insurance had a perch on the sixth floor of the Frick Building for more than half a century before his death Sept. 22 at age 94.
Mr. Thomson was known for quietly going about his work and serving faithfully at Shadyside Presbyterian Church.
He gave no indication such a bequest was in the works, said William Carl, president of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)-affiliated seminary.
“These are wonderful surprises,” Mr. Carl said. “This is the biggest gift that has ever come from anyone, living or deceased, in the over-220-year history of the school. It’s pretty amazing.”
Mr. Carl said Mr. Thomson was “very quiet, very humble,” impeccably dressed and long a resident on Fifth Avenue in the Squirrel Hill-Shadyside area.
Mr. Thomson served as treasurer of Shadyside Presbyterian and in other roles there, listed in church bulletins as an usher right up until September. “Those of us who were blessed to know and work with him will deeply miss his wisdom, wry wit, and unswerving constancy, and will cherish his memory and example,’’ the church newsletter said at the time.
Mr. Carl said some of the bequest will be used to cover the outstanding balance of the seminary’s $26 million capital campaign completing this year, of which $20.5 million has already been raised. The administration has begun asking professors and others in the seminary community for ideas on using the balance of it. The gift had no restrictions.
Mr. Carl said Mr. Thomson talked little of himself but enjoyed meeting with students at scholarship dinners. “He constantly was talking to me about, ‘How are the students doing?’ ‘I'm so impressed with your students, impressed with where they’re going to serve in churches and mission fields around the country and the world.’”
Mr. Thomson had two brothers, who also were avid supporters of the seminary. One of them served on its board. He was a bachelor who, at his death last fall, requested a private funeral and had no published obituary.
His brief LinkedIn profile said he graduated from Princeton University with a master of laws degree and had owned Thomson & Sproull since 1960.
One who remembers him well is Jonathan Stewart, pastor of New Covenant Community Church in Homestead and an attorney whose offices were next to Mr. Thomson’s in the Frick building.
In an email to the seminary, he recalled Mr. Thomson as “a man of advanced age, better than average height, who walked with a slow gait and carried a very pleasant demeanor and kind words to those he encountered. As a matter of fact I can say in retrospect his demeanor was quite luminous.”
Mr. Stewart said Mr. Thomson’s office still had original furnishings from the tower.
“His kindness will be felt not only in his contribution toward the health and welfare of the seminary, but also in his encouragement to a young lawyer who also happens to be a pastor, who also happens to attend his cherished seminary,” he said.
Blockbuster donations are not uncommon among post-secondary schools. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s website lists more than 300 bequests or pledges of at least $50 million, among them gifts to Carnegie Mellon University of $265 million and to the University of Pittsburgh of $125 million by philanthropist William S. Dietrich II and three donations to CMU exceeding $50 million.
But that list includes only three theological schools by name: Emory University School of Theology in Georgia, $83 million; Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, $58 million; and Columbia Theological School in Georgia, $55 million.
The Chronicle also lists Samford University in Alabama as receiving a $55 million donation, which was designated to create a divinity school. The Chronicle’s list does not include gifts below $50 million.
Peter Smith: email@example.com or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.
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