SMU remembers Peter O’Donnell, Jr., SMU trustee and renowned Dallas humanitarian

SMU mourns the loss of civic leader and philanthropist Peter O’Donnell, Jr., who passed away on October 10, 2021, at the age of 97.


“Peter’s devotion to SMU and Dallas was an inspiration to us all,” said SMU President R. Gerald Turner. “His loss will be sorely felt by those who were witness to and impacted by his monumental support of the arts and education. His legacy stretches far beyond the borders of SMU and Dallas, and his memory will be honored through the cultural initiatives and improvements made possible through his work.”

A Dallas native, O’Donnell dedicated his life to bettering his community and his state through service in the military, nonprofit and political sectors. A graduate of Sewanee: The University of the South in 1947, O’Donnell went on to receive an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania following his naval service during World War II. After his military service, O’Donnell went on to serve as the state chairman of the Republican Party (1962–1969) and on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (1981–1985).

Upon his return to his hometown, O’Donnell spent the remainder of his life focusing on improving education, supporting the arts and actively working in politics in Dallas and throughout the state of Texas. He and wife, Edith Jones O’Donnell, who passed away in 2020, founded the O’Donnell Foundation in 1957, which seeks to improve STEM education by building model programs to better enhance and develop teaching and learning in Texas. The foundation also supports Advanced Placement programs in math, science, English and art, as well as higher education art programming.

“Peter was remarkable both for his dedication and his incredibly generous spirit,” said SMU Board of Trustees Chair Robert H. Dedman, Jr. ’80, 84. “Peter’s desire for better resources for our students and greater support for our schools changed the landscape of STEM education throughout North Texas. He and Edith were a force of good in our community, and he will be greatly missed by us all.”

As chairman, president and CEO of the O’Donnell Foundation, O’Donnell’s commitment to education was evident in the many schools and educational institutions that benefited from the foundation’s generosity. At SMU, he served as a member of the Board of Trustees (1973–1981), the Board of Governors (1974–1981) and on the Lyle School of Engineering Executive Board (1990–1991). In 2008, honoring their incredible contributions to education and art, Peter and Edith O’Donnell were granted the degrees of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, an honor only granted to those who have exhibited remarkable philanthropy through contributions to humanitarian and charitable causes. The O’Donnell Foundation, helmed by the couple, was awarded the Mustang Award in 2014. His relationship with the University was further strengthened through his support of programs across SMU, including SMU-in-Taos, Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences and Meadows School of the Arts.

“Peter’s memory will live on in the students whose education he helped improve and the organizations he strengthened through his outstanding support and dedication,” said SMU Vice President for Development and External Affairs Brad Cheves. “His absence will be keenly felt, as will the powerful impact he left on our campus, our city and our state.”

In 2005, O’Donnell was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and served on the Presidents’ Circle of the National Academy of Sciences. A founding member of the Academy of Medicine, Science and Engineering of Texas, O’Donnell also founded Laying the Foundation and the Advanced Placement Incentive Program, which seeks to increase the participation of low-income students in advanced placement courses and tests.

Peter O’Donnell, Jr. is survived by his three daughters, Anne O’Donnell, Carol Kradolfer and Ruth Mutch, as well as his son-in-law Lyle Kradolfer, six grandchildren and two great grandchildren.