The University of Chicago has received a $50 million gift from the late Arley D. Cathey of El Dorado (bachelor of philosophy, 1950), a devoted alumnus and patron of the university.
The bequest, the largest estate gift in university history, was directed to UChicago when Cathey died in 2020 at the age of 93.
It will support UChicago’s commitments to educational access and financial aid, enhanced opportunities for undergraduate research, and new international educational programs for college students and research collaborations sponsored by UChicago faculty abroad.
In honor of the gift, the college is launching a $20 million match campaign, called the Arley D. Cathey Odyssey Challenge, to support the Odyssey Scholarship Program. More than 5,300 students have accessed UChicago through Odyssey, the university’s flagship financial aid initiative, which helps ensure need-blind, loan-free education for students. The challenge will help continue the mentorship, study abroad and paid internships made possible through the program, along with the elimination of loans and academic-year work requirements.
Cathey’s legacy of philanthropy began in 2012 when he committed his estate -- then valued at $17 million -- to the college, in honor of his physician father, Arley D. Cathey Sr., who died in 1977.
In recognition of that gift, four spaces on campus were named for Cathey Sr.: The Harper Reading Room and Stuart North Reading Room in Harper Memorial Library became the Arley D. Cathey Learning Center, and the Cathey Dining Commons and Cathey House residential house on South Campus also bear his father’s name.
“The University of Chicago is deeply grateful to Arley for his generous support of undergraduate education,” said President Paul Alivisatos. “His bequest emphasizes the importance of UChicago’s transformative education and the University’s unwavering commitment to ensuring access for talented students worldwide.”
Cathey enrolled in the college at age 16. He often remarked that reading texts such as the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” as part of the Core curriculum was a transformative experience.
“I really think that reading the classics have helped shape my beliefs to a great extent, probably as much as my family’s instruction has guided me,” Cathey said in a 2012 interview. “The university plays a good role in shaping a person’s beliefs for life. It did mine.”
Cathey told a university publication in the 2012 interview that the son of a family friend had plans to attend the university, but that they didn’t want him to go to Chicago alone. They visited with Cathey’s parents and brought copies of a Chicago application with them.
“I hadn’t even thought about it, because I was not graduated from high school. It was a surprise that they wanted me to go and skip my senior year of high school. That sounded real good to me, because I didn’t really like the local high school. I really thought that it would be wonderful to get away from that. So we came to Chicago,” he said.
Following the loss of his only son in 2014 and his wife in 2016, Cathey deepened his relationship with the university. Traveling from his hometown of El Dorado, he regularly returned to UChicago for Alumni Weekend, Orientation Week and other events on campus. He ate lunch alongside students in the dining commons, enjoyed participating in Cathey House traditions such as barbecues and fireside chats, and often returned home with Cathey House buttons.
When Cathey could not visit campus, he stayed engaged with podcasts, recorded events, news and reports, including messages of gratitude from students. He also wrote letters to the residents of Cathey House, where he was a beloved figure known for his signature bow tie collection.
In the hope of maximizing his support of UChicago, Cathey devoted substantial energy in his later years to building his bequest. Along with successful businesses in butane gas, appliances and furniture, he also owned commercial real estate. After deciding to sell the bulk of his assets, he poured the profits into the stock market. He quickly realized he could earn more managing his own investment portfolio than he could in the retail business. He often commented to John W. Boyer, dean of the College at UChicago: “I’m growing my gift for the University of Chicago, John.”
Now his historic gift will have an impact on generations of UChicago students. His bow ties will be added to the University’s Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center.
“The college is profoundly appreciative of Arley’s bequest,” Boyer said. “The founders of UChicago believed undergraduates should use their educations to transform and improve the public welfare. Not only did Arley’s College experience enable him to meaningfully impact the world as a scholar and businessman, but his boundless devotion to and respect for UChicago also will give more students the opportunity to enjoy the distinctive education he so greatly valued for years to come.”