Mar 20 2014


A 1953 University of Montana alumnus has committed $11 million of his estate for academic scholarships at UM, the largest pledge for scholarships in the history of the University. President Royce Engstrom announced the gift last week at a reception for alumni from the San Francisco Bay Area.

Tom Cotter '53 '59, of Palo Alto, Calif., is retired from a successful career in the investment field. The gift is a big show of support for UM’s Investing in Student Success Initiative, launched by Engstrom last summer.

“This is an incredible step toward providing resources for Montana high school students who wish to pursue a degree at the University of Montana,” said Engstrom. “It is such a generous gift, and one that dramatically influences UM’s ability to recruit and support Montana high school students. Tom Cotter and his family will forever change the lives of many people through this generosity and foresight.”

Tom CotterGrowing up on a ranch near Townsend, Cotter says he watched the labor of his parents as they raised livestock and farmed the land of west-central Montana.

“My parents were hard workers,” he said. “I saw their work ethic, and came to learn about expectations. Back then, in a rural community, we would walk one and a quarter mile one way to school every day. Growing up on the land, and without the simple luxuries of running water, plumbing, electricity— this is where I came from and how I was shaped.”

By 1945, Cotter says the flags were waving and bands blaring in support of the war effort. Knowing he wasn’t old enough to enlist in the Army, Cotter was accepted in the Merchant Marines at the age of 16.

“I dropped out of high school and shipped out to the Pacific on a Liberty Ship,” Cotter said. “We had war cargo, and going to the Marshall Islands, we joined a convoy that steamed north on a zigzag course to Okinawa. That was the last big battle of World War II. After the war ended, I had to come home and honor the promise I had made to my parents to finish high school.”

After graduation, Cotter still wanted to see more of the world. He shipped out as a deckhand on a freighter, traveling around the world for 15 months before deciding it was time to enroll in college. He chose UM for his both undergraduate and graduate work.

“After I received my master’s degree in sociology from the University of Montana, I served as a special agent in the Army Counterintelligence Corps for two years,” he said. “Then I was off to the Boeing Company in Seattle, where I worked for nine years in human resources.”

During a stint for Boeing that took him to Cheyenne, Wyo., Cotter decided to try his hand at financial planning on the weekends. He liked the work and decided to make a career of it, joining Merrill Lynch in 1965. Eventually he would join the investment firm that would become Franklin Templeton, retiring after 20 years of service.

After trailblazing new markets in the investment industry, his family settled in Palo Alto, Calif., where Tom and his wife, Neva, still reside today. Their daughter, Mary Ann, graduated from Palo Alto High School then followed in her father’s footsteps by attending UM. Mary Ann, who graduated from UM in 1995, is now a member of the UM Foundation President’s Club.

At 84 years of age, Tom still enjoys alpine skiing and volunteer work. He also stays involved with the Cotter Charitable Foundation through which the family makes grants to at least 50 different entities annually.

"My father and mother were generous people, almost to a fault,” he said. “I think that helped me as much as anything, living in a family that looked out for the indigent. During the Depression, they would bring food to needy people and we could see it as children. That parental influence was very important to us.

Looking back on his experiences, Cotter realizes how much his education affected his success.

“I could have never made it without my education, and I want to see if I can help upgrade the situations of students who want the chance to learn,” he said. “I have such a love for Montana and the University, and have always felt that students could be very good recipients of my money.”

After a lifetime of opportunities, Cotter lives by an ethic of generosity that now reflects an important legacy he will leave for the next generation. 

“You know the old saying, ‘You can’t take it with you when you die?” Cotter asks. “There’s lot of truth to that. It’s amazing how many very wealthy people die with their boots on and their assets locked away.”

The gift, which is made through the University of Montana Foundation, aims to make a UM education available to more students through increased scholarship support.  

Watch a video of Cotter explaining how his upbringing influenced his decision to give: 

Watch a video of the gift announcement event in San Francisco: