Investing in People: Scholars Pay Tribute to Margaret McDermott

Editor’s Note: The following is an editorial that appeared in The Dallas Morning News and written by Megan Coker BA’10, a 2006 McDermott Scholar, and Benedict Voit BA’08, a 2004 McDermott Scholar. Coker is president of the Eugene McDermott Scholars Program Alumni Association (EMSPAA), and Voit is co-founder of the EMSPAA and initial vice president of development.

Margaret McDermott is pictured with Jonathan and Megan Coker in 2009. Jonathan and Megan are 2006 McDermott Scholars.

Margaret McDermott was fond of saying that she and her husband, Eugene McDermott, shared a fundamental commitment: Always invest in people. Margaret contributed to many things, as this publication has attested. But perhaps her greatest legacy will be the people in whom she invested — specifically, the students who became Eugene McDermott Scholars at the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD).

Typically, reaching your 88th year of life warrants rest and retrospection — looking back and reliving your incredible experiences. Margaret McDermott was never typical. She was always looking forward, and when she was 88, she started a new life for herself, for UTD, and for hundreds of national and international scholars. In 2000, Margaret told UTD to create a world-renowned scholarship program. So began the McDermott Scholars Program with the simple, yet daunting, task of bringing to Dallas the best and brightest students.

For the past 18 years, Margaret watched this program develop and grow with remarkable success. The inaugural classes’ took a giant leap of faith. Despite a lack of alumni or older students who could prove the value of the program, these high school students recognized Margaret’s vision and inspiration. And they shared it, as have the students who have followed. Those who have become McDermott Scholars would tell you that they were thrilled to see a program that would fund their education, teach them leadership skills (and even etiquette!), and provide access to study abroad, as well as cultural and artistic activities in Dallas, Washington, D.C., Austin, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Mexico City. They saw the obligations of service, community involvement and leadership that came along with the program, but they welcomed those obligations alongside the benefits. More than anything else, they saw the potential to become their best selves, to develop into the leaders they wished to become.

The newest class of McDermott Scholars boasts 23 students from across the country, bringing to UTD research, service-oriented attitudes, talent, and leadership — plus a lofty average SAT score of 1563 and average class rank of 1.72 percent. High school seniors now frequently turn down acceptances from major institutions such as Harvard and Yale to become proud UTD Comets.

McDermott posed with several Scholars

Mrs. McDermott at the DSO Gala with, clockwise from top left, Eric Kildebeck, Benedict Voit, Walter Voit, Felicity Lenes Voit and Michael Seeligson.

But the story does not end when these extraordinary students graduate from UTD. Margaret McDermott’s investment in people was limitless and unceasing, right up until the weeks before her death. She invited McDermott Scholars to an annual cookout each year, and she stayed engaged with her scholars as they became alumni. Those who lived in Dallas were invited to attend events like the Dallas Art Ball, performances at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Dallas Opera, and the DSO Gala concert, to name just a few.

Even more intimately, Margaret McDermott would host weekly lunches at her ranch in Allen, where she continued to astound us all with her matter-of-fact nature, curiosity, interest in people, and desire to continue both teaching and learning from her younger colleagues. Margaret would meet us in her ranch house to share a passage that struck her from a work of history or nonfiction, or to start a vibrant conversation with questions about art, education, politics, or recent news.

Often Margaret would surprise the alumni with august visitors, from Ross Perot, to the families of directors of business, educational and cultural institutions in Dallas, to her dearest friends from all walks of life. One alumnus aptly compared these gatherings to the salons of old in Paris. These humble ranch gatherings seemed a fitting Texas equivalent.

Margaret McDermott’s current scholars now number almost 100, and her alumni number just over 220. With them, her philanthropic spirit has been contagious. McDermott Scholars have given generous senior class gifts each year to improve UTD. And the Eugene McDermott Scholars Program Alumni Association, just over 5 years old, has already contributed $115,000 to UTD, affiliated organizations and Dallas charities. Individually and collectively, Margaret’s alumni share a drive to lead and serve.

Those who knew Margaret McDermott feel deep sadness as we realize that we will no longer be able to share her exceptional presence. But we alumni and scholars feel so fortunate that she chose to invest in people, in us. In this age of division and silos, Margaret McDermott drew close a wide circle. She helped to create a university and scholarly community like no other.

We are proud to be her people. Wherever we go, we will carry forward Margaret McDermott’s vision. We will seek to create similar communities, bound by leadership, service, scholarship — and of course, curiosity.

a large group of McDermott Scholars at Mrs. McDermott's memorial service

Former and current UT Dallas McDermott Scholars and McDermott Graduate Fellows (pictured above) attended the memorial service for Mrs. Margaret McDermott, which was held at the Meyerson Symphony Center on May 8.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].