Richard P. Simmons, an active and committed alumnus since he graduated in 1953, has pledged $20 million to improve the quality of student life at MIT, envisioning the new residence hall on Vassar Street as a centerpiece of a new era on campus.
Mr. Simmons and his wife Dorothy, who made the gift jointly, believe MIT must make quality-of-life issues a high priority to continue to attract the caliber of students who help make it a leader in higher education. He retired as president and CEO of Allegheny Teledyne Inc. in Pittsburgh on October 1, but continues as chairman of the board.
"Dick Simmons is a trustee of MIT in the deepest sense of the word," said President Charles M. Vest. "His counsel, constructive criticism and friendship have served MIT very well, and have meant a great deal to me personally. He is pragmatic, yet retains a long view of what MIT is and can be. Based on this view, he and Dottie have decided to make a magnificent contribution toward the future quality of student life at MIT. He is a strong advocate of improving the attractiveness and functioning of our campus. This wonderful gift to MIT and its students contributes greatly to both objectives."
In a letter to President Vest, Mr. Simmons said, "My unique success, which has put Dorothy and me in a position where we can make such a commitment, remains the great wonder of our lives. Whichever factors played a significant role in our success, one factor must be the education I received at MIT."
He went on to say that the planned new athletic center and the residence hall are important steps toward developing a new campus environment. "For MIT to continue to provide the kind of educational experience [necessary] to retain its worldwide reputation as an outstanding university, it must be willing to allocate resources specifically focused on quality of life issues at MIT. It is for this reason that we are delighted to make this pledge."
In an interview last week, Mr. Simmons expanded on those thoughts. "Nobody ever said MIT is warm and cuddly," he said. "MIT students are intense, competitive and extremely bright. They need opportunities to interact socially on campus and meet faculty outside the classroom. The new dormitory should be an important first step in that direction. We need to make it easier for them.."
Mr. Simmons, 68, spoke from personal experience. He lived in East Campus during his freshman year in 1949, surrounded by classmates who ranged from battle-hardened World War II veterans to confident young men from elite schools like the Bronx High School of Science and Peter Stuyvesant High School in New York. It was intimidating, even for a young man who'd finished at the top of his class at Bridgeport (CT) Central High School.
"There was nothing Institute-driven to help people make adjustments," said Mr. Simmons, who joined Delta Upsilon as a sophomore and moved to its fraternity house in Boston. "There were no house proctors, no mentors. It really wasn't a very pleasant experience."
But it certainly was worthwhile. When he graduated in 1953, Mr. Simmons was well-grounded in professional skills and $2,000 in debt. He was happy to land a job at Allegheny Ludlum in Pittsburgh as a research metallurgist for $338 a month. Nineteen years later, the son of a gas station owner became president of the company.
"I doubt that I would be anywhere near as well off as I am today if it weren't for MIT," said Mr. Simmons. "Was it tough? No question. Was it worthwhile? Absolutely. MIT teaches you how to think and solve problems. It also teaches you to be humble. At MIT, you find out there are lots of people smarter than you are. Those aren't bad lessons for life."
Mr. Simmons conferred with his wife of 40 years before making the $20 million commitment; "half of our wealth is hers," he noted.
Professor Anne McCants, chair of the Founders Group for the new residence hall, said, "I was very impressed with the excitement that Dick Simmons obviously felt for the new residence when we met with him in September to show him the plans and talk about the kind of program we were hoping to see implemented there. It was clear that he saw a lot more than just the chance to support a funky building when we met with him."
Sophomore Rima A. Arnaout, a member of the Founders Group, said, "I'm delighted to hear about the gift. It's one thing to plan the structure and programming behind a new dorm, but it's another thing to have money behind those ideas."
Mr. Simmons, who joined the MIT Corporation in 1989 and has been a life member since 1998, established the Richard P. Simmons Endowed Scholarship Fund In 1990 with a pledge of $1 million. The award is earmarked for students from the western Pennsylvania/eastern Ohio/northern West Virginia area, or for children of Allegheny Ludlum employees anywhere.
He pledged an additional $940,000 to his class' 40th reunion gift in 1993 to assure a record, and pledged $1 million toward the Department of Chemistry Renovation Campaign. Other gifts from Mr. Simmons have supported the Community Service Fund, Friends of MIT Crew (he was coxswain on the varsity lightweight boat as an undergraduate), the New York Campaign Celebration and unrestricted funds.
The Richard P. Simmons Professorship in Metal Processing and Manufacturing, a career development chair, was established in 1988. At the same time, the Richard P. Simmons Research Fund in Materials Processing and Manufacturing was established.
The Richard P. Simmons Chair in Metallurgy was funded by gifts from the Allegheny Ludlum Foundation and several major stockholders in honor of Mr. Simmons's retirement. The gift was kept a secret from him until it was announced in June 1990.
Mr. Simmons, who majored in metallurgy, worked at Allegheny Ludlum for six years before joining Latrobe Steel Corp. in a managerial position in 1959. He moved on to Republic Steel Corp. three years later.
He returned to Allegheny Ludlum in 1968 as vice president for steel manufacturing and rose rapidly through the ranks, becoming president of the specialty materials firm in 1972. He became CEO in 1980 and retired 10 years later, when he led a management buyout of the company after taking it public in 1987. When Allegheny Ludlum merged with Teledyne Corp. in 1996, Mr. Simmons returned as chairman of the new company. On October 1, he retired again.
Allegheny Ludlum has completed its transformation and reconfiguration into three public companies. The largest piece will be one of the largest high-technology specialty metals companies in the world.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 17, 1999.