As word spread that Lawrence High and University of Kansas alumnus David Booth had pledged $50 million, in $10 million installments over five years, toward a $300 million football stadium renovation, many wondered aloud, “Why would he do that?”
In a 20-minute interview with the Journal-World shortly before the opening kickoff of Saturday’s football game at Memorial Stadium, won by West Virginia, 56-34, Booth answered that question.
“I was trying to convince them to let me give them $100,000 a year for 500 years, but they said, ‘No, I don’t think you’re going to last that long,’” said Booth, a 1968 graduate of KU.
Born at Lawrence Memorial Hospital to Gilbert and Betty Booth, he lived in Lone Elm and Garnett before moving to Lawrence and becoming a member of West Junior High’s first graduating class.
Booth’s first exposure to Kansas football came when, as a Boy Scout, he served as an usher at games.
“I quit the Boy Scouts and then I was over at the fieldhouse selling popcorn,” he said. “I was one of those kids who was very irritating to people, walking around with a bunch of popcorn — ‘Sit down, kid!’”
John Hadl was an All-American running back and quarterback for Kansas when Booth was an usher. In recent years, Hadl has worked in the Williams Fund, asking for big donations. Booth’s is the biggest gift in the history of the athletic department.
He once donated $300 million to the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, from which he received his MBA in 1971. It now is known as the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
“University of Chicago has downplayed athletics,” Booth said. “We don’t really have a Division I team in anything.”
It wasn’t always that way.
“The first Heisman Trophy winner (Jay Berwanger) was a University of Chicago running back,” Booth said. “They were a powerhouse. Amos Alonzo Stagg (one of the inductees of the first college football Hall of Fame class) was the coach at Chicago. Then abruptly they just shut it down. That’s fine.”
But it runs in contrast to Booth’s beliefs.
“I’m familiar with the argument as to why you might not want to have a serious athletic program,” Booth said. “I get the arguments. I don’t agree with them. I’m on the other side.”
Booth said he sees a value in college athletics that extends beyond athletic departments and teams.
“It’s a way for the alums to stay connected to the university,” Booth said. “You don’t stay connected through the biology department. You stay connected through athletic programs. So I’ve tried to be helpful.”
The goal of the fundraising campaign is $350 million, all but $50 million of which is earmarked for football.
“I buy a lot of art,” Booth said. “This would buy a lot of art. But every now and then you’ve just got to stand up because you realize nobody else is going to. And I’m able. Not that many people can, right? A lot of people would give $50 million to the university if they had it.”
The donation is expected to come with naming rights, but any such move would have to go before the Board of Regents for approval. Booth declined to comment on that.
Booth lives in Austin, Texas, where the business he co-founded in 1981, Dimensional Fund Advisers, is now headquartered, but he visits Lawrence regularly.
The children of Gilbert and Betty Booth donated money for the creation of the Booth Family Hall of Athletics, a museum inside Allen Fieldhouse. David Booth also purchased the original rules of basketball, housed inside the DeBruce Center.
In athletics, large donors often expect to have a say in hirings and firings within the department.
“I’m different,” Booth said. “My attitude is, you give this money to make yourself happy. First off, it’s scary. You’re always worried — ‘What happens if I can’t pay it off?’ I’ve been blessed so far, but you never know, right? After you get through that anxiety, I’ve already gotten the joy out of it because wherever my parents are right now, they’ll be happy. They get it.”
Booth said he was “so touched” by a plaque honoring his parents at the Booth Family Hall of Athletics.
“They moved to Lawrence so we could live at home and go to college because they knew they would never have enough money to send us away,” he said. “I mean, I’ve never had to sacrifice like that for my kids.”
As for why KU’s recent poor record in football did not discourage him from kicking off the campaign, Booth had an explanation.
“This is a long-term thing,” he said. “It’s like the stock market. You have long periods of time when the results are disappointing. What people don’t realize, from 1966 roughly to 1980, for a 15-year period, stock returns didn’t keep pace with inflation. You play for the long haul. You try to do the right thing and that’s all you can do.”