In memoriam: R. Michael Shanahan, Harvey Mudd board chair and benefactor

 a smiling man with grey hair, glasses and a suit
Shanahan’s gifts “touched every aspect of the college — faculty, students, staff, buildings — everything,” Harvey Mudd board chair James Bean HM ’77 said. (Courtesy of Kathleen Fisher)

R. Michael Shanahan, a former chair of Harvey Mudd College’s board of trustees and a significant donor to the college, died July 29 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s.

Shanahan became a Mudd trustee in 1992 and served as the fifth chair of the board from 1998 to 2006. He also served as chair of the board’s investment committee and contributed to other committees.

“Mike had a great love for Harvey Mudd College and our mission,” President Maria Klawe said in a July 30 email. “He deeply appreciated our passion for educating students who will understand the impact of their work on society. I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to know Mike, and to benefit from his wisdom, warmth and generosity. His passing is a huge loss.”

During their lifetimes, Shanahan and his wife Mary donated more than $35 million to HMC. Their pledge of an unrestricted $25 million in 2008 was the largest gift in the college’s history.

Shanahan’s contributions are recognized on major campus buildings, including the Hoch-Shanahan Dining Commons and the R. Michael Shanahan Center for Teaching and Learning. He also helped establish the R. Michael Shanahan Dean of the Faculty Chair, the Shanahan Professorship, the Shanahan Student-Directed Project Fund, the Shanahan Strategic Projects Fund and the Shanahan Family Scholarship.

“He just really fell in love with the attention that the college paid to undergraduate education and the quality of the undergraduate education there. His gifts touched every aspect of the college — faculty, students, staff, buildings — everything,” said James Bean HM ’77, the current chair of the board of trustees.

“He was not only generous, but thoughtful in the needs of the college in every possible aspect. The college wouldn’t be as successful as it is without his investments, leadership and engagement.”

Shanahan was born and raised in Southern California. He attended Stanford University on an ROTC scholarship, serving in the U.S. Navy for three years after graduating in 1960. Initially a less-than-perfect college student, Shanahan was inspired by his fellow Navy officers to apply himself to his studies, his daughter Kathleen Fisher said.

That led him to return to Stanford, where he received an MBA in 1965 — and spurred a life of dedicated work.

“When he graduated from Stanford, his net assets were $100,” Fisher, a Mudd trustee, said. “He worked super hard, he was really talented and he was really lucky … there aren’t a whole lot of people who have that combination.”

After graduate school, Shanahan took a job as a financial analyst at Capital Research and Management Company, managing mutual funds and long-term investments. Fisher said Shanahan initially saw it as an opportunity to learn about his clients and find a long-term job with one of them — but instead, he stayed at the firm for 47 years and eventually became its chairman.

Shanahan was father to three children and grandfather to six. Fisher remembered bonding with him over golf, meeting him at the course after school and on the weekends. 

He was always committed to the value of learning, Fisher said.

“We always had dinner together as a family every night. Sometimes there would be math puzzles that he would call out,” she said. “I remember one conversation, for example, what does it mean to be old? How can you tell if somebody is old? And the definition that we agreed upon was that someone was old when they were no longer open to new things.”

Shanahan was generally introverted and reserved, but listened closely and worked diligently to support others.

“He was a person of very thoughtful, high integrity,” Bean said. “He didn’t say a lot, but what he said was highly impactful.”

Despite the prominence of his name on campus, Fisher said, Shanahan was more concerned about the effects of his donations and supporting Mudd’s educational programs the best he could.

“He hated having his name on stuff, really,” she said. “Many donors go around with the intent of getting their name on stuff, and Dad would go around trying to not put his name on it. It turns out that it’s tricky to give your gift money and not put your name on stuff.”

Over the years, Shanahan was recognized by Mudd for his commitment and generosity. He was the 13th person in the college’s history to receive an honorary doctorate of engineering, science and humane letters. Additionally, he received a Lifetime Recognition Award in 2009, an Order of the Wart from the HMC Alumni Association in 2004 and the Sprague Award for Outstanding Volunteer Service in 2006.

“Mike was profoundly influential in the life of Harvey Mudd College,” Klawe said.

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