Robert E. Meyerhoff was already a prominent businessman, philanthropist, art collector and racehorse breeder in Maryland when he was approached in 1988 by a young black university administrator on a mission: Freeman A. Hrabowski III, who would soon be named president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, wanted him to invest in a new program aimed at graduating more African-American students in the sciences.
Mr. Meyerhoff, an MIT-trained engineer, liked the idea, but he had a caveat: “He said that, with the exception of sports, everything he saw on TV about young black men was about crime and handcuffs,” Mr. Hrabowski recalled. “He wanted the program to be specifically aimed at young black males in the sciences. It was something he insisted on long before anyone else was talking about the issue.”
Thus was founded the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program at UMBC, which in the decades since has become a national model for training African-American students in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math. Today, UMBC is the leading producer in the country of black graduates who go on to M.D. and Ph.D. programs, and those Meyerhoff graduates, who now include women as well, can be found on the staffs of America’s top universities and research institutions.
“What is so significant,” Mr. Hrabowski said, “was that he gave not only money but also so much of himself. He has shown the kind of interest one shows when one cares deeply about people. In the first year of the program, he wanted to know every student’s grades, their backgrounds and how they were doing, and he’s continued to ask about them ever since.”
Mr. Meyerhoff’s belief that much is required of those to whom much is given was demonstrated again in 2008, when he donated to the National Gallery of Art in Washington a stunning collection of postwar American art that he and his wife, Jane, who died in 2004, had assembled over several decades.
The collection includes some of the most important names in American art from the second half of the 20th century, including Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Brice Marden, Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella, all of whom the couple got to know well in the 1950s and ’60s.
The Meyerhoffs built seven galleries in a house with windows overlooking grazing horses on their northern Baltimore County farm to display a collection that experts have valued at more than $300 million and call one of the finest in the world of its kind. Mr. Meyerhoff also donated the house to the National Gallery, which will convert it into a satellite museum so that Baltimore-area viewers can see pieces in the collection that aren’t in Washington in the setting the Meyerhoffs originally designed for them.
Mr. Meyerhoff has made giving to the nation his mission, and in doing so he has shown the best of what it means to be a man of great good fortune who truly cares about his community and its people.