Gift celebrates family’s legacy at Penn State

When Jeff and Kellie Hepper gave $5 million to Penn State, they were honoring not only a philanthropic commitment but also a family legacy at the university stretching back more than a century.

The donation, announced by the university in January, will go toward the Trustee Matching Scholarship Program. In return, the university will name the fitness center in Rec Hall after Jeff’s parents, Clif and Jean, Penn State alumni.

The donation is the largest in the 10-year history of the scholarship program, the university said

“Our motivation for donating was twofold,” Jeff Hepper said. “We were looking to honor my parentsand help students get a good education.”

Neither of the Houston couple attended Penn State, but their sons are enrolled; Cole is a senior and Troy a sophomore. Hepper said he can count at least 12 family members who have gone to Penn State, going back to his grandfather who graduated in 1912.

It was at Penn State that his parents first met. His father was sent to the university by the Army during World War II to get an engineering degree. He met his future wife, then an education major, at a service member dance, Hepper said.

After the two graduated in 1947, Hepper’s parents continued to stay close to the university, visiting with their children, and later their grandchildren, almost annually for nearly 60 years.

“They were season ticket-holders; as kids we would take family trips up to see football games,” Hepper said. “The tradition continued with our kids, as well.”

Hepper said his parents’ commitment to exercise and physical fitness was the primary reason he and his wife chose the fitness center when presented with the naming opportunity. His mother, 87, is an “exercise fanatic,” and his late father was an avid golfer and tennis player, he said.

In addition, Hepper said, both his sons are active on the water polo team and thus very involved in weight lifting and conditioning.

“We showed my mother the fitness center and she loved the building,” Hepper said. “So it seemed like a perfect fit.”

Jeff Hepper graduated from the University of California-Davis with a degree in chemical engineering. He said he followed his father into the oil industry, beginning with Mobil Oil in Southern California. He then spent 25 years with Vitol Group, running the refining and storage business and eventually gaining a position on the board of directors.

Kellie Hepper is a UCLA graduate.

According to David Lieb, associate vice president for development, it’s not unusual for a university to receive multi-million dollar gifts from non-alumni. However, it is much more typical to receive such donations from alumni or donors who have had longer relationships with the institution, he said.

“Our conversations with Jeff and Kellie began in February of last year and by November they had made a decision,” Lieb said. “I think that underscores their decisiveness and generosity.”

Lieb said the “incubation” period for a gift of that size is normally much longer, sometimes 18 to 24 months.

Hepper said the family requested that the scholarship be specific to University Park and be need-based. The $5 million will be paid out over five years, with four and a half percent of the endowment spent each year in perpetuity, along with the 5 percent the university matches as a part of the Trustee Matching Scholarship Program.

The donation brings the program close to its goal of $100 million, Penn State said in a release.

Education is an important part of the family’s philanthropy, Kellie Hepper said.

She said the decision about where to give the endowment was made by the entire family.

“We love everything about the school and wanted to do something for it,” Kellie Hepper said. “We hope we can help people go to Penn State who might not be able to go there otherwise.”

Despite all that has happened at Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky case, Jeff Hepper said he remains supportive of the university and he thought that now would be an especially good time to donate.

“We wanted to stand up in the crowd,” he said.

In terms of major donations, Lieb said Penn State is having a “good year” and has received several multi-million dollar commitments. However, comparative numbers will only be released at the end of the fiscal year in July, so it remains unclear how well this past year will stack up to those before the Sandusky scandal.

Hepper said that although his father died from cancer a few years ago he would have approved of the scholarship commitment to an institution he loved so much.

“He would be ecstatic,” Hepper said.