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File photo/University Relations

Charles Spahr speaks with School of Engineering students in this file photo. Spahr and his wife, Mary Jane, gave KU a $32 million gift via their estate, bringing their total giving to KU to $45 million. The gift will support engineering faculty, students and facilities.

KU's largest private gift ever to benefit School of Engineering

Spahrs give $32 million to support students, faculty, facilities

During their lifetimes, KU alumnus Charles E. Spahr and his wife, Mary Jane Spahr, were among the most generous donors to KU, giving $13 million. But they saved the best for last, contributing an additional $32 million to KU Endowment through their estate to benefit the School of Engineering.

Their combined giving total is $45 million, making them among the most generous donors in the university’s history.

Charles (Charlie) died in 2009, and Mary Jane (Janie) died in 2010, after living most of their lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

“The Spahrs’ lives were transformed by attending KU, and through this generous gift, they will in turn transform the lives of generations of students,” said Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little. “It will also greatly enhance our ability to meet the increasing demand for engineering graduates.”

Charlie Spahr grew up in Independence, Mo. He earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from KU in 1934; Janie grew up in Sugar Creek, Mo., and was a member of KU’s Class of 1938.

Charlie worked his way through college by holding various jobs, including binding books and working as a chauffeur for the chancellor.

After graduating from KU, Charlie joined Standard Oil of Ohio in 1939. During World War II, he served as a major in the Army Corps of Engineers, where he supervised construction of a 570-mile section of pipeline through China and Burma to supply fuel for long-range bombers. He resumed work for Standard Oil after the war, becoming president in 1957 and chief executive officer in 1959. Spahr was instrumental in opening Alaska’s North Slope oil reserves to the United States, overseeing construction efforts for the Alaska pipeline and helping to negotiate a merger with the British Petroleum Co. He remained CEO and chairman until his retirement in 1977.

“Charlie and Janie Spahr were so passionate about their experiences at this institution and how it shaped their lives,” said Stuart Bell, dean of the School of Engineering. “We are blessed that they chose to support the KU School of Engineering and our students and faculty who share their love for discovery and potential to transform the world. Funds from this gift will enable the school to offer scholarships and fellowships to an even greater number of academically talented students. We will also be able to create funded professorships that will provide a topflight classroom and lab atmosphere for our students.”

The Spahrs’ gift builds momentum for the school’s Building on Excellence Initiative. Designed to help fuel the state’s economic growth and business success, the initiative focuses on students, faculty, facilities, leadership and research. The result will aid industry partners in finding new talent, designs and techniques.

As a part of the initiative, the School of Engineering plans to achieve a 60 percent increase in the number of students earning bachelor’s degrees in engineering by 2017.

“Charlie Spahr had a modest upbringing, a brilliant intellect and a gift for leadership,” said Dale Seuferling, president of KU Endowment. “He believed in setting goals and working hard to achieve them.”

Charlie Spahr remained active at KU throughout his life. He served KU on the planning committees for the engineering library and Summerfield Hall. He was a longtime trustee of KU Endowment and area vice president of the KU Alumni Association chapter serving Cleveland. He was an honorary lifetime member of the School of Engineering Advisory Board. He received the university’s Distinguished Service Citation in 1964, the Fred Ellsworth Medallion in 1983 and the Distinguished Engineering Service Award in 1980.

Charlie and Janie Spahr’s earlier gifts to KU included funds for construction of the Spahr Engineering Library, the Spahr Engineering Classroom in Eaton Hall, the Bruckmiller Room in the Adams Alumni Center, scholarships and professorships.

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