In what is believed to be the largest gift to a private school in the Baltimore area, McDonogh School announced yesterday that it will receive as much as $20 million - the legacy of an orphan who was a student there nearly a century ago.
H. Beale Rollins found an extended family on the rolling campus of the Owings Mills school, which was founded in 1873 to educate some of the poorest children in the area. Later, he attributed his success as a lawyer and trucking magnate to the life lessons he learned in its brick halls.
"Beale Rollins considered McDonogh his family," said Barry Rollins, the nephew of the school's benefactor, who lived in a house on campus and died in 1985. "Beale would have endorsed this matching grant 100 percent."
The school plans to use the donation by the Rollins-Luetkemeyer Foundation to provide more scholarships to needy students.
"There are three key moments in the history of the school," Marc P. Blum, president of the board of trustees, said yesterday: The school's founding for the poor, the enrollment of paying students during the Depression, "and the Rollins-Luetkemeyer matching gift."
To receive the full amount of the pledge, McDonogh School must raise another $20 million. School officials said they'd soon start seeking donations.
The importance of charity is part of the fabric of schooling at McDonogh. Students are steeped in the precepts of the founder, John McDonogh, who counseled: "Study in your course of life to do the greatest amount of possible good."
Rollins enrolled in 1909 at the age of 10 after his father's death. He attended on a full scholarship and graduated in 1915 as class valedictorian.
In 1961, Rollins and his banker, former state treasurer John A. Luetkemeyer, established the charitable foundation.
The pledge to McDonogh is the latest from the Rollins family and the Rollins-Luetkemeyer Foundation, which reported $51.5 million in assets on its most recent tax return.
The family and foundation have donated more than $13 million to the school for an athletic fieldhouse, a dormitory, a performing arts center and a leadership-training program for seniors.
In 2001, the foundation gave $8 million to help subsidize the tuition of the children of faculty and staff.
While the gift is substantial, it isn't the largest nationally. In 1993, publisher Walter Annenberg gave $100 million to the New Jersey prep school he had attended.
Last year, the Gilman School received a $10 million donation, which was thought at the time to be the largest among Baltimore area schools.
McDonogh officials said their gift would bring added diversity to the school, which has 1,271 students. They hope 20 percent of the student body will receive some form of financial aid as a result, up from the current 14 percent.
The school also plans to use the funds to raise teacher salaries, which officials hope will help them recruit and retain top faculty.
"I've never had an opportunity to raise a lot of money to support kids and support teachers, and it's always been in the back of my mind," said Headmaster W. Boulton Dixon, who first broached the donation in the summer of 2001.
Dixon had just finished a round of golf with Luetkemeyer's son, John Jr., when he suggested the pledge.
"I was a little bit shocked, but I kept thinking about what Beale Rollins and my father would like and thought it would be a good decision," recalled Luetkemeyer, a commercial real estate developer who leads the foundation. "McDonogh was their wish."
Tuition at the school, where boys must wear ties and dress shirts and girls must wear khaki skirts or slacks, reaches $17,000 for upper school students. For some families, financial aid can cover as much as 90 percent of tuition, but the costs still prevent some children from attending.
"Knowing we're going to make this opportunity available to more families is very exciting," said Anita Hilson, the director of admissions. She said the money wouldn't be available in time for next school year, however.
The foundation and the school are still working out the mechanics of how the pledge will be given. Luetkemeyer said the foundation expected to start giving money as other contributions came in.
"There's no question we're going to be a stronger school academically," said Wright Abbott, who heads the English department.
Abbott said added diversity would enrich classes like his elective on American social issues, which uses books like "The Color Purple" to explore violence against women and "The Cider House Rules" to discuss abortion.
Although Abbott said he learned of the pledge in December, most of the school wasn't informed until this week. Faculty members gave a standing ovation at a meeting last night announcing the pledge. Parents were notified by e-mail last night.
Rochelle Murray, who's enrolled in the Rollins-Luetkemeyer leadership training program, was one of the few students given advance notice.
"It's a great opportunity to bring more students to the school and give them a chance to give back," she said.
Sun staff writers Meredith Cohn and Kate Shatzkin contributed to this article.