Kevin Reilly had just pulled into the parking lot of a local retailer to take care of some holiday shopping three years ago when his cell phone rang. John Morgridge was on the line.

“We chatted for a minute and then he told me he and Tashia planned to announce some scholarships,” recalls Reilly, president of the University of Wisconsin System. “And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’”

But Morgridge — a Wauwatosa native, UW-Madison graduate and member of the Forbes 400 list of America’s wealthiest people — wasn’t talking about helping a few kids through school. He and his wife wanted to give $175 million to create the Fund for Wisconsin Scholars, an endowment that would provide a couple of thousand grants each year to low-income students attending one of Wisconsin’s public colleges or universities. The gift is believed to be the second-largest philanthropic act in state history behind the $205 million Jerome Frautschi gave to build the Overture Center in Madison.

“My jaw dropped down to the floor,” says Reilly. “I just sat there in my car. It took me awhile to gather my wits about me before I said, ‘Gosh, that’s spectacular.’”

The endowment fund is just one piece of what the Morgridges have given to help state higher education in recent years. They’ve donated $34 million to renovate and expand Bascom Hill’s 110-year-old Education Building, which was rededicated in a Nov. 15 ceremony. At the time the gift was secured in 2004, it was the largest ever made to UW-Madison, topping the $25 million donation by Herb Kohl in 1995 to build the Kohl Center.

And in 2006 they gave $50 million for the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, which will celebrate its much-anticipated grand opening on Dec. 2. This groundbreaking, $205 million facility is a public-private partnership that will house two world-class biomedical research institutes and a public “town center” with educational offerings.

“Both John and Tashia have this view that they’ve been fortunate — not just because of their own personal skills but that life has been good to them — and they should give back,” says Carl Gulbrandsen, the managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which pumped in $105 million and is overseeing the Institutes for Discovery project. “Their mission has been to make life better for others, and that’s what they’ve done.”

Their giving is deliberate, but not controlling, say many who have worked with them over the years.

“In the philanthropy world there is something called the ‘Curse of the Living Donor,’” says Charles Read, the former dean of the School of Education who helped secure the Morgridges’ donation to re-do the Education Building. “This is a person who wants to basically run the place because they’ve given money. Now that’s not the Morgridges, not at all.”

It is their vision that drives their giving. Tashia Morgridge, a 1955 graduate of the School of Education, wanted to help protect the century-old Education Building from the wrecking ball; John Morgridge wanted to help UW-Madison retain its stature as a research power by helping make the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery a reality; and they both believe that a little help can transform the lives of those who otherwise might not be able to afford a higher education.

“The Morgridges’ generosity and the contribution of their vision is one of the most significant things to happen to this university in the last few decades,” says UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin.

This past summer, the Morgridges joined a philanthropic movement led by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates called The Giving Pledge, which is an effort to convince America’s wealthiest individuals and families to commit to giving away the majority of their wealth to worthy causes. The Morgridges, who reside in Portola Valley, Calif., were one of 40 individuals or families who agreed to sign on.

“They’ve never lost their Wisconsin values,” says John Wiley, the former UW-Madison chancellor and interim director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, the public half of the Institutes for Discovery project. “That’s just the way they are — very giving people. They did quite well, have taken care of their kids in terms of trust funds, and so basically they’re trying to give away everything they own while they’re alive.”

•    •    •    •

Getting a read on who, exactly, the Morgridges are and where their passion for philanthropy comes from is no simple task. When told a reporter was hoping to profile the couple, they declined several requests for an in-depth interview because they felt any articles should focus on the good their donations have produced — not the people doing the giving.

“They don’t like to toot their own horn,” says Wiley.

When approached at the rededication ceremony for the Education Building, the couple did agree to answer a few questions, shedding some light on why causes associated with higher education in Wisconsin have received so much of their support.

“First and foremost, we feel it’s important to give back to the institutions that nurtured us,” says Tashia Morgridge. “Also, we live in California — and California is so big, it’s difficult to make much of a difference in such a big pond. But in this state, you can. And when you have this very strong university that is able to take your ideas, accept your ideas and help bring them to fruition, that’s important.”

Finally, notes Tashia: “We don’t live here. We started out trying to be totally anonymous with our gifts, which we found out is just not possible. So if you can’t be anonymous, it’s nice to be out of town.”

John Morgridge and Tashia Frankfurth met at Wauwatosa (now Wauwatosa East) High School, and both went on to earn undergraduate degrees at UW-Madison in the spring of 1955. They married that summer — one which John spent working as a “tunnel mucker,” digging a storm sewer under the Milwaukee River.

“He looked like a slug who came out from under a rock,” Tashia says with a wide smile while sitting on the back deck of the revamped Education Building. “Everyone else was so nice and tan, except John.”

Soon after, the couple headed to California so John could attend graduate school at Stanford University and Tashia could start a teaching career.

“All of our possessions fit into our 1950 Ford and all of our wealth fit into a back pants pocket,” the couple notes in their Giving Pledge letter.

John earned his master’s in business administration from Stanford within two years, and Tashia later picked up a master’s degree in education from Lesley College in Massachusetts in 1975, dedicating her life to working as a special-education teacher. She still volunteers to teach reading to disadvantaged students who attend schools in East Palo Alto, Calif.

“Whenever I’d play with my younger sister when we were girls, she was always the student and I was always the teacher,” says Tashia. “We played school a lot. Even when we were playing with dolls, the dolls had to be students, too. Education has always been my passion.”

Although John worked for a handful of companies on both coasts during his career, he is best known for growing Cisco Systems in San Jose, Calif., from an obscure startup into a global leader in networking and communications technologies and services.

The couple have an adult son and daughter, and six grandkids; a second son died of leukemia several years ago.

Don Gray, the retired vice president for principal gifts at the University of Wisconsin Foundation, recalls meeting John for breakfast one morning in the late 1980s in California. At the time, Morgridge was president and chief operating officer of GRiD Systems, which was “making these newfangled things called laptop computers,” jokes Gray.

“John pulls out this wrinkled piece of paper and it was an offer for him to go and become the president of Cisco, which at the time was just a very small company, a bunch of Stanford graduate students who needed a business manager,” says Gray. “When John went there it was for a relatively small salary and as part of the deal he got these Cisco shares, which at the time were not worth anything. And that’s the genesis of the success story.”

When Morgridge joined Cisco in 1988 as president and CEO, the Internet was in its infancy and the concept of communicating via a computer was foreign to the masses. By developing and tracking these new technologies and finding markets for them, he helped grow a company that had 34 workers and was doing $5 million in sales to one which by 1994 had more than 2,200 workers and more than $1 billion in sales, according to the Cisco website.

Morgridge took the company public in 1990, and in 1995 was appointed chairman of the board. He became chairman emeritus in November 2006. Today, Cisco employs more than 65,000 people around the globe, with annual revenues of $40 billion.

In September, Forbes calculated Morgridge’s net worth at $1.3 billion. The Morgridges’ Tosa Foundation had assets of $462.9 million and made donations worth $71.7 million in 2008, the most recent year for which figures are available through guidestar.com, a website that tracks charities.  

“It was quite the ride,” Gray says of the Morgridges’ climb. “I still get chills just talking about this because they are both such wonderful people.”

•    •    •    •

It was another ride, decades earlier, that was a defining moment in John Morgridge’s life.

He had just graduated from high school and was resigned to spending a year or two going to college in the Milwaukee area so he could live at home and save money. John had two older sisters away at school and an older brother, and his father, an appliance salesman and sales manager, couldn’t afford to pay for everyone to be away at college at the same time.

But his brother Dean, a student at UW-Madison, had other ideas, John told a crowd of Green Bay high school seniors in 2007 while announcing the Fund for Wisconsin Scholars program.

“Freshman week came and went up at UW-Madison and I can remember on a Friday afternoon my brother was getting ready to go up there — he was a junior, a geologist — and he turned to me and said, ‘You know you’re going to hate it staying here at home and going to school,’” said Morgridge, who choked up and had to pause before continuing the story. “He said, ‘Get your stuff and put it in the car, you’re coming with me.’ And I did that and we drove up to Madison and he said we’ll both get jobs and we can make this work. And it did.”

He called his brother his “genie,” and said the scholarship program was his and Tashia’s way of offering opportunities to others. “We’re hopeful, my wife and I, that the gift that we’re providing in the form of scholarships will act as a genie for you,” he said.

Then Tashia Morgridge took the podium. “What we’re hoping to do is we know there are kids in the state of Wisconsin who do have challenges,” she said. “We hope by helping with the financial challenges that we’re going to give high school students hope that they’ll be able to go on to college without ending up with an enormous debt.”

“What we’re trying to do is give all high school students some hope, and give you an opportunity,” she added, noting that the money did not have to be paid back. “It really is something that’s now up to you. ... If you stay in school, if you work hard, if you get into college, there will be a grant waiting for many of you.”

In its first two years, the Fund for Wisconsin Scholars — a private, not-for-profit foundation — awarded $9.7 million in aid to low-income students across the state. During the 2009-10 academic year, 2,642 students received help ranging from $1,800 to $3,500 per student, depending on whether one goes to a community college or UW System school.

“Getting that college degree doesn’t guarantee success,” Tashia says. “But if you don’t have an education, you don’t have opportunities. I’ve felt very strongly about that forever and hopefully these grants can open the door to opportunities for some students who need a little help.”

•    •    •    •

Gov. Jim Doyle proposed a new biomedical research institute for the UW-Madison campus in November 2004 as a way for the state to keep its edge in the field of stem cell science. California voters had just passed a referendum to spend $3 billion in tax-free state bonds on this groundbreaking research, and Doyle was committed to keeping Wisconsin a world leader in a field it helped pioneer thanks to the work of Jamie Thomson.

Doyle planned to fund a portion of his proposed $375 million project with $50 million in state funds that had previously been earmarked by former Gov. Tommy Thompson for the BioStar project. The rest of the money, however, would need to come from elsewhere.

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“When Gov. Doyle announced the project, I think John and Tashia both saw that as a door opener,” says WARF’s Carl Gulbrandsen.

Wiley, who was chancellor at the time, says Doyle called him in to discuss how to come up with a collaborative, forward-looking, multidiscipline 21st-century research institute. The problem, says Wiley, was that the $50 million in state funding needed to be augmented with private dollars to make the project viable. Wiley knew raising the tens of millions of dollars needed would be a tall order.

“It’s one thing to raise private money from loyal alumni within a particular department or college,” says Wiley. “You can’t do that with a multidepartment, multidiscipline building.”

But John Morgridge understood the merits of what Doyle was proposing and felt the facility was important if UW-Madison was to retain its standing as a stem cell leader and research power moving forward.

The Stanford graduate and lecturer — who also is a longtime member of the WARF board — saw firsthand the impact the Clark Center had on the Palo Alto, Calif., campus. The Clark Center, which opened in the summer of 2003 and houses Stanford’s Bio-X Program, promotes itself as “one of the most radical experiments in scientific research in the world.” The Bio-X program is designed to support, organize and facilitate interdisciplinary research connected to biology and medicine.

“So I tried to convince the WARF board we ought to do an interdisciplinary facility like Clark,” says John Morgridge, who still teaches a business course at Stanford. “The driving factor is to get scientists to think beyond just their own research. How can we find ways to apply this research to better mankind? That’s what this (Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery) building is all about.”

So with the commitment of $50 million from the state, $50 million from the Morgridges and $50 million from WARF, the project, which was pared down from its original $375 million price tag, became a reality. WARF has since committed another $55 million to push the facility’s sticker price to $205 million. All involved are confident the building will help UW-Madison — which currently brings in more than $1 billion per year in research funding — further its reputation as a world leader in research for decades to come.

“There is nothing else like it on campus — maybe in the country,” says Wiley.

•    •    •    •

John and Tashia Morgridge work as a team and both must be convinced of a project’s worth before moving forward with any major donation.

Yet it’s clear the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery project is special to John, while the renovation and expansion of the Education Building holds a special place in Tashia’s heart.

It was no secret the Education Building needed to be significantly refurbished, if not replaced. Designed in 1899 and constructed in 1900, the original blueprints called for a U-shaped building with east and west wings. But due to funding problems, the main building was first put up before a west wing was added in 1910. A hodgepodge of additions and alterations to the building that sits on Bascom Hill then came in the early 1950s, although the east wing never was completed.

“The building really was a disgrace,” says Charles Read, who served as dean of UW-Madison’s School of Education from 1995 to 2005. “It was a potentially beautiful old building, but wires and pipes had been added over the years that looked out of place. There weren’t even bathrooms for men and women on the same floor. It really didn’t make a good statement about the university or School of Education.”

Although Read says there were no plans in the works to take the wrecking ball to the aging facility, there were whispers that it might be easier to level the building and start from scratch. But the only idea Tashia, a member of the School of Education’s Board of Visitors, backed was refurbishing and expanding the current facility.

“From very early on, I’ve valued the buildings on Bascom Hill and the way in which they represent the university,” says Tashia. “I value the old buildings and the feel of those buildings. And so when they started talking about putting a new building here, I decided to try and do something to make sure we wouldn’t abandon the quality and the warmth and the history of the original building.”

Thanks to the Morgridge gift, the Education Building renovation and addition project not only preserved things like the original facade and the grand central staircase, but the east wing was finally completed and the interior of the old building was modernized. A new backside was also added to include a commons area, meeting rooms and an outdoor landscaped plaza that offers picturesque views of Lake Mendota.

“It’s the transformation from what used to be a central campus eyesore into a beautiful and functional structure befitting one of the premier schools of education in the United States,” says Julie Underwood, the school’s current dean.

Those involved with the project are hopeful it can serve as a model for how renovations of historic buildings can be accomplished elsewhere on campus.

“Here on Bascom Hill we have some more old buildings, such as South Hall and North Hall, and somewhere along the line they’re going to have to be taken down or remodeled in a way that respects the original architecture,” says Read. “And I think the Morgridges wanted to do this (Education Building) as an example of what can be done. So this went beyond the School of Education itself.”

Similarly, the Morgridges donated 100,000 shares of Cisco stock in 1994 to help complete the historic preservation and renovation of the old Red Gym on campus, and to create the Morgridge Center for Public Service. Mary Rouse, the former director of the center, says that when those shares were first given to the UW Foundation, they were worth $33 each before quickly jumping to $100 — making the gift worth $10 million. She estimates $7 million went to the Red Gym project and $3 million to establishing an endowment that helps fund the center, which is located inside the front door of the Red Gym.

“Both are rock-solid believers in public education and view the University of Wisconsin as this state’s greatest asset,” says Rouse, who still works part time for the center as a community outreach liaison. “So they’ve made a commitment to supporting it.”

When the Morgridges took the Giving Pledge earlier this year, they — like the other families who committed to donating most of their wealth — wrote a public letter explaining their decision. “Early on we learned the art of giving small checks to causes important to us,” they said. “Through hard work, good fortune and the opportunities offered by our amazing country and the world, we have prospered beyond all expectation. As a result, we have been able to add many zeros to the amounts of the checks we are now able to write.”