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$85 million gift from Bob Abernethy and partners for campus collaboration and scholarship
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$85 million gift from Bob Abernethy and partners for campus collaboration and scholarship

A $85 million donation was made by two Davidson College longtime partners, a transformative philanthropic organization, and the son of a professor who attended Davidson as a child to support the transformation of the college’s library and instructional approach.

With a $60 million gift, the Duke Endowment—which is committed to enhancing communities throughout the Carolinas—is making Davidson’s history’s largest donation.

Longtime Davidson College friend, business leader and community advocate Bob Abernethy has made an extraordinary investment in the learning and lives of generations of Wildcats — a gift that honors his father.

Known for his high standards and love of learning, Professor George Abernethy founded the Philosophy Department and co-founded the Humanities Program at Davidson College. Today, he is remembered by his son, Bob, and the college community with a transformative gift that will name the library in his honor.

“I believe the library is the central part of the learning process at Davidson,” Bob said. “My dad always said all one needed to get a good liberal arts education is a good mentor and a good library — somebody to guide you and the resources to learn. He would be delighted about this project.”

Bob’s tremendous investment in the future of Davidson College reshapes what is possible for learning, scholarship and collaboration on our campus.

“His personal passion for libraries, paired with his desire to honor the Abernethy family’s deep Davidson history, makes this an incredibly special gift,” said President Doug Hicks ’90. “We are grateful for Bob’s generosity and commitment to education and for his ongoing, invaluable friendship and partnership. This gift will transform the way we define educational excellence at Davidson.”

George Abernethy founded the college’s Philosophy Department and was its only professor from 1946 until 1961, when Earl MacCormac was hired. In 1962, he co-founded Davidson’s Humanities Program, an interdisciplinary approach to learning that continues to be a signature academic program for the college. The author of several books and articles on philosophy and religion, Abernethy was a Richardson and Dana Professor of Philosophy and received Davidson’s first Thomas Jefferson Award for Teaching Excellence.

“Our job these days is to get students into libraries, to use the resources of libraries,” Bob said. “I’m aghast at the efforts across the U.S. to remove resources from libraries and even further aghast at the efforts to make librarians criminals by having books declared illegal by legislators. This runs in the wrong direction of where we, as a society, need to go.”

Bob recalls his father saying half the job of learning was asking the right questions. The other half — but only half — was answering them. A lifelong learner himself, George had a library carrel on campus for years following his retirement.

“It’s important for students to have spaces where they can share ideas and share arguments on issues,” Bob said. “The creation of these spaces is essential to the development of disciplined, creative, and prepared minds. It also will facilitate Davidson’s mission to encourage students to think clearly, make relevant judgments and communicate freely in the realm of ideas. These offerings and the renovated library at large will provide the essential spaces for students to prepare themselves for lives of service and leadership.” 

The Duke Endowment also announced a $60 million gift, the largest in Davidson’s history, to support the project.

“I grew up as a kid in the ’50s, hearing about The Duke Endowment and all the great things the organization did for Davidson, Duke, Johnson C. Smith and Furman,” Bob said. “I’m delighted they are, in a much bigger way than I, helping out with the library project.”

Charlie Raynal  first met George Abernethy in 1962, his second year as a Davidson Wildcat. He knocked on the professor’s door and told him he’d like to become a philosophy major.

“Dr. Abernethy had a reputation on campus,” Raynal said with a laugh. “He was either someone you learned a lot from, or he was someone you avoided like the plague because he had huge, high standards. I found his depth of expectation compelling. It was overwhelming to me at times, but the rewards of paying attention were significant.”

The professor’s high standards paid off in student success, and Bob is proud of the influence his father played in many of their lives.

“For 20 years, my dad advised students applying for the Marshall Scholarship and the Rhodes Scholarship,” he said. “When he retired in 1975, Davidson had the second highest percentage of undergraduates awarded these scholarships — Davidson was second only to Harvard.”

Another feather in his cap, Bob said, is a four-year period, 1987-1991, where four of his father’s former students were all serving as presidents of institutions at the same time: Don Shriver  at Union Theological Seminary in New York City; Hartley Hall  at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.; Randy Taylor at San Francisco Theological Seminary; and Doug Oldenburg  at Columbia Theological in Decatur, Georgia.

Raynal ended up taking every course offered by George Abernethy, and when he returned to Davidson in 1979 as the pastor at Davidson College Presbyterian Church (DCPC), the professor-student relationship grew into friendship.

“I had seven years of experience before I returned to Davidson, but I was still unprepared for the job,” Raynal said. “George and I became dear friends, and he continued to mentor me. He and [his wife] Helen sought me out, and I did the same. He was a devoted Christian, and he would make suggestions for my sermons and give of his time to the church.”

Raynal is thrilled about Bob’s decision to make this gift to Davidson.

 

“I’m fortunate that Bob confided in me as he was making this decision, and I think it is wonderful,” he said. “Libraries build community, and we really need more of that. Our world needs it, our politics need it. I still have my Cat Card, actually, and check out books from time to time, so I look forward to visiting the new space.”

George and Helen Abernethy moved their family to Davidson, North Carolina, in 1946. The population of the town was around 1,500. Bob chose to spread his wings and attend college elsewhere, a decision that led him to Johns Hopkins University, Harvard for business school and, following military service, the West Coast, where he launched a successful business career and became the founder and president of both American Standard Development Company and Self Storage Management Company. 

“I’m probably one of the only people who can say they’ve known every Davidson College president dating back to Walter Lingle, who moved into the position in 1926,” Bob said. “When we moved to Davidson, our backyard was his side yard. That’s a special thing, to have those relationships, and it has kept me closely connected to Davidson all my life.”

The Abernethy family is also closely connected to DCPC, which Bob fondly remembers running around in as it was being built. George taught four- and five-year-old kids in Sunday School classes for years. In honor of this long family legacy and commitment to teaching children, Bob recently supported a significant expansion of the DCPC library. Construction began just this month, and the space and collection will grow by 400 percent, with a special focus on materials young children can learn from and understand.

Bob’s generosity has supported Davidson College students for years, as well. He has given to student research opportunities and established a book fund in his mother’s name. He also is past chair and an active member of the Davidson College Board of Visitors.

Outside of Davidson, Bob’s involvement spans national and international issues ranging from refugee assistance and immigration policy to enhancing the arts scene in Los Angeles. He has served on numerous boards, supporting organizational efforts around education, healthcare research, foreign policy and more.

Despite the busyness of his work and volunteer schedule, Bob always finds time for Davidson — his home, which is now home to The George Lawrence Abernethy Library, too.

Photo: Bob Abernethy with Davidson College President Doug Hicks

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