Santa Clara Magazine

Discover. Innovate.

Discover. Innovate.

By Steven Boyd Saum

Thomas Leavey was humble about his business success. He was at the right place at the right time, he said. View full image. Illustrations by Owen Smith
A $30 million gift from the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Foundation to help build a new home for science and engineering.

The outstanding news came out June 2: The Leavey Foundation is giving $30 million to help build the Sobrato Campus for Discovery and Innovation. This is a project unique in undergraduate education—creating a space to bring together electrical engineers and biophysicists and mathematicians to solve complex problems.

You read in our last edition about the landmark gift from John Sobrato ’60 and Sue Sobrato: $100 million, the largest gift in SCU history. That’s to build the biggest building in SCU history, to make the University a part of Silicon Valley like never before—and to say to alumni and friends: Come join us.

In fact, more students will be joining us here. “The Sobrato Campus for Discovery and Innovation will allow us to increase enrollment by several hundred students in STEM-related areas,” says Jim Lyons, our vice president for University Relations. “High-tech leaders want more engineers, more mathematicians, more computer scientists. But normally these people all study in different buildings. They might not even talk to one another. In this building, they could be right next to one another, sharing lab and classroom space. From a curricular standpoint, they’re going to work together across disciplines and across schools. That’s what we need to solve problems in our world.”


Leavey receiving an honorary degree at SCU
Thomas Leavey was presented with an honorary degree by SCU President Patrick Donohoe, S.J., in 1964. Photo courtesy SCU Archives

Generations of students have benefited from the support of the Leavey Foundation, established by Thomas E. Leavey ’22 and Dorothy Leavey. Scholarships have made SCU affordable to a diverse range of students. A gift from the foundation made possible the construction of the Leavey Center, home to SCU Athletics. The foundation invested in programs to enable the Leavey School of Business to become nationally recognized. 

So who was Thomas Leavey?

Third son of Irish immigrants, raised on a dairy farm in California’s Humboldt County. His father wanted Thomas to go to college so he wouldn’t spend life working “in the ditch,” like his dad. Thomas arrived at Santa Clara in January 1918. He studied, he played baseball—earning props as “the premier pitcher.” He served as an active-duty officer during World War I, returned to study, then headed east for a government job and to complete a law degree at Georgetown. The mid-1920s found him in Los Angeles, working in banking. LA was booming; it had just become the largest city in California. The age of the automobile was going into high gear, too. Leavey made an observation: Rural drivers have fewer accidents than city drivers. So they should have lower car insurance rates. On that premise, he founded Farmers Insurance.

Business grew. And the stars aligned for Thomas in other ways: He met Dorothy Risley; they wed in 1930. A daughter, Kathleen, was born; and another, Dorothy Therese. 

In the postwar boom, business thrived. In 1948 Thomas created a profit-sharing program to give employees a stake in the company’s successes. And in 1952 the Leaveys created the Leavey Foundation to support causes they believed in. Thomas’ classmate Edwin A. Heafey ’20, namesake of the Heafey Law Library, drew up the papers.

Thomas Leavey became a founding member of SCU’s Board of Regents in 1959. In recognition for his “service to both Catholic and secular education in America,” SCU awarded him an honorary degree in 1964. He joined the Board of Trustees in 1967 and helped steer the University through a time of great change in higher education. All the while, he and Dorothy gave—usually quietly—many millions to support educational, medical, and Catholic causes. Thomas died in 1980, and Dorothy continued to lead the foundation. In recognition of her work, SCU presented her with an honorary degree in 1989. She passed away in 1998—at 101 years.

Dorothy Leavey
Philanthropist Dorothy Leavey. Photo courtesy SCU Archives


Today the Leavey Foundation, based in Los Angeles, is chaired by daughter Kathleen McCarthy Kostlan. She values the education Santa Clara provides, producing “graduates not only with excellent critical thinking skills, but also the moral compass to put them to use for the greater good of the world around them.” Granddaughter Kathleen McCarthy Duncan carries forward hands-on involvement with SCU, serving on the Board of Regents. Grandson Michael McCarthy ’80 previously served as a regent and a trustee for SCU.

At the foundation, they’re excited about what the Sobrato Campus makes possible: a focus on STEM and solving complex problems. That’s in the DNA of Silicon Valley. We’re pretty jazzed about it, too.

Bringing scientists and engineers together is the best way to tackle the world’s most complex problems. Read an essay by biologist Michelle Marvier ’90 on the impact the new Sobrato Campus for Discovery and Innovation will have on learning at SCU.

  • Thomas Leavey—House of Philhistorians
  • “Premier pitcher”: Leavey playing baseball at Santa Clara
  • Los Angeles beginnings: Thomas Leavey at a desk, 1924
  • Military Portrait of Thomas Leavey
  • Portrait of Thomas and Dorothy Leavey and Family
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