Marjorie Bekaert Thomas ’69, CEO at Ivanhoe Broadcast News, Inc., who has funded $1.4 million toward Alzheimer’s research in addition to supporting faculty, endowing a scholarship, and contributing to the Annual Fund.
What inspired you to make your gifts and why did you choose to focus on Alzheimer’s research?
My good friend Kitty Wrenn left a trust when she died five years ago and named me sole trustee, with my only job being to donate it all for research on Alzheimer’s disease. Kitty believed that Alzheimer’s had occurred many times in her own family and was committed to the search for a cure.
For the first year, I couldn’t write a single check because I felt like I had to guarantee it would “cure Alzheimer’s” and, of course, no researcher can promise that. Once I got past that hurdle, I started looking around the country for ways to encourage scientists to do more research on Alzheimer’s. I was so pleased when I found that Duke was doing so much in this area. Kitty’s mother, Winona Jeffrey Wrenn, was a Woman’s College graduate in the class of 1933 and I graduated in 1969.
How did your time at Duke develop and shape you as a person? Is there something you took away from your education here that has stood you in good stead through the years, either personally or professionally?
Being surrounded by so many smart professors and students for my four years at Duke was life-changing. The variety of opinions, the passion of the ’60s, and the wide-ranging discussions in and out of class all exposed me to ideas and people I never knew existed.
I agree with President Brodhead when he says university life is supposed to expose students to things their parents never would have, and give them the chance to choose the person they want to be for the rest of their lives. The most loving parents in the world, which I had, always want safety and security for their children but what has made my life so satisfying is taking risks—plus the joy of forging my own path. I’m not sure that person was created at Duke but Duke certainly nurtured the spirit that enabled that person to develop. Duke teaches students to trust their own judgment as well as be open to hearing the truth from others.
Why is giving important at a place like Duke?
At a conference I attended at Duke twenty years after my graduation, someone asked the group: Duke was a great investment of your time and your parents’ money but what kind of investment are you for Duke? That struck such a chord for me because I had never thought of myself as one of Duke’s investments.
Duke can’t compete with the top ten private universities without alumni donations. Additionally, my husband, Bryan, and I feel strongly that Duke must be available to the best students no matter what the income level of their parents. The only way to do that is to fund scholarships that will allow Duke to recruit these students. Duke will not continue to be what I want it to be if it is only the domain of children of the rich.
The donations I was able to make in Kitty’s name to further Alzheimer’s research were also designed to encourage undergraduates and graduate students to pursue research and to accelerate finding the cure for Alzheimer’s disease.
What is the most inspiring experience you’ve had here?
The best experience I had at Duke was being in the first class of the first black professor at Duke. Dr. Samuel DuBois Cook became a mentor and good friend for life. He embodied what I loved about the South and did not allow the things we both hated to divide us. Fifty years later, he still inspires me to be a better person and certainly a better boss.
Any advice for undergrads?
Try everything. Embrace differences. Find out what matters to you and pursue it the rest of your life. Refuse to make money the only measure of success. Find a spouse who inspires you even if you wait ten years to get married!