The Extraordinary Penny Stamps
Her gift made the U-M art school a global force.
by Jan Schlain
From the February, 2019 issue
For Penny Stamps, September 20, 2012, "was like a trifecta," says Mary Alice Bankert, director of development and alumni relations at what was then the U-M School of Art & Design.
The centerpiece was the announcement that the school was being renamed in Stamps's honor. That summer, Stamps and her husband, venture capitalist E. Roe Stamps IV, had given the school $32.5 million.
It was also the birthday of the new dean, Gunalan Nadarajan. And it was the day that the Stamps's first grandchild, Hunter, was born in Florida.
So naturally, that's where the couple were. "We had flowers ordered and ready to go," says Bankert. They sent the arrangement to the couple's home in Coconut Grove, congratulating Stamps on both the naming and Hunter's birth.
"I remember her saying that it washed all over her," Bankert says. "It was like this really monumental event--the family now had a grandson, and she now had a school at her alma mater named for her.
Stamps was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 2016. Chemotherapy and a bone-marrow transplant bought her time, but she died this past December.
She had lived to see the birth of another grandchild, Winnie Stamps-Ridgeway; to give the U-M's commencement speech last spring; and to see the Stamps School achieve national distinction.
Sculptor Michele Oka Doner recalls that there were "very few women" in the art school when she and Penny Witt were undergrads in the 1960s.
At the time, the school was located in Lorch Hall on Central Campus. Their paths didn't cross much then. Doner was downstairs, welding and using the heavy machinery with the boys, while Stamps was upstairs "where they sent most of the women," studying interior design.
About fifteen years ago, they met at a Miami art event, connected, and became friends. "We would sit and have conversations about our lives," Doner says. "She was thoughtful."
"She grew up in Chicago and had a down-to-earth Midwestern sensibility," says Chrisstina Hamilton,
who runs two of Stamps's signature projects at the U-M, the Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series and the Roman J. Witt residency program (named after her father, a researcher at the Illinois Institute of Technology).
Her father died in 1980. Her mother is still healthy at ninety-seven. Until fairly recently, Hamilton says, Carmella Witt lived on her own, growing tomatoes on her balcony.
It was her mother who made sure that Penny, their only child, got a good education. "In the 1960s," says Hamilton, "she went to work, during an era when working moms were not yet in fashion, and saved all her money so Penny could attend the University of Michigan."
If she had to describe Stamps in just one word, Doner says, it would be "gratitude." She was "more of the Eisenhower generation than the 1960s," and "had a traditional marriage in the best sense of the word. She loved being a wife and loved being a mother" to her children, Will and Annie.
At last year's commencement, Stamps gave the graduates advice about life, work, and--especially--family. "Cherish your family," she told them. "At the end of your life, you won't regret not getting that project done ... but you will regret not spending enough time with a parent or child."
She also urged them to "choose your life partner well. Find someone who will help you through life." She found that in Roe Stamps.
"Friends introduced me to Penny at a New Year's Eve party, 50 years ago," Roe emails. "She was working in Washington, DC, and I was on my way to US Navy Officer's Candidate School in Newport, RI. She didn't think much of me at the time, but I was certainly impressed.
"Luckily, the Navy cleaned up my act and when I went back to Washington some months later, she accepted my offer for a date. We were inseparable after that."
"They were a great team," says former athletic director Bill Martin, who worked with them when Roe donated $400,000 for the department's academic center. "They made the larger decisions jointly."
When he and Penny met, Roe already had two industrial engineering degrees from Georgia Tech. After she put him through Harvard's business school, he went into venture capital, working for a couple of firms before cofounding Summit Partners in Boston in 1984.
According to Summit's website, the company has since managed more than $20 billion in assets and invested in more than 440 companies. Though the family moved to Florida twenty-five years ago, Roe continued to serve as a Summit managing director until 2000, and a senior advisor until 2017.
Penny Stamps reopened contact with the art school in the late 1990s. "We had lunch in Miami," recalls then-dean Allen Samuels, and talked about how she might help the school. But Samuels was nearing the end of his term; he says it was his successor, Bryan Rogers, "who invented the lecture series."
Rogers "went out of his way to listen and solicit" the couple, Hamilton says. Roe Stamps agrees, saying that the dean got them "more and more involved."
Rogers also hired Hamilton, who at the time was running the Ann Arbor Film Festival. "The festival was only showing 16mm film," Hamilton recalls. "I knew that had to change." When she heard that Rogers was the kind of guy who liked to stir things up, "I said to myself, 'That's a guy I need on my team.'
"The first time we met, I said to him, 'I hear you're good at pissing people off. He said, 'Where's the hammer? Let's
smash it right open.'"
Central administration had been trying to shake up the art school since the 1980s. Rogers was the latest outsider brought in on a mission to make the school more distinguished--and the most successful. He changed the curriculum, replacing deep immersion in a single medium with a broad introduction to many art forms. And he asked profs to teach courses in subjects that were not their specialties, causing many to retire or move on, making room for new hires.
Hamilton had hoped Rogers would help her update the film festival. Instead, he recruited her to help update the art school by expanding the Stamps lecture series. As she recalls it, he told her, "I have this woman who is giving money to the school. I think we can make this a really big thing."
If Rogers' changes opened up the school internally, the Penny Stamps Speaker Series opened it up to the world. In consultation with Stamps, Hamilton has brought hundreds of creative types to the Michigan Theater, from Sally Mann and Temple Grandin to Pussy Riot and Maira Kalman (twice).
Yet "we do this series on a song," Hamilton says. The Stampses saw no reason to pay exorbitant speaking fees. She remembers Penny telling her, "This is a philanthropic endeavor"--not just for her, but for the presenters. Her philosophy was that artists' work was their livelihood and "talking about that art is their part of the philanthropic effort."
As Stamps wanted, the talks are free and open to the public. That makes them transformative, Hamilton says, because "it is a platform that all different people can attend. We have a group that come from Bowling Green. I took a letter [to Penny]from a woman who opened an art gallery and was struggling, and she wrote that Penny and her lectures kept her going. She was the first person [other than the Stampses] to give money to the series, and she's been giving ever since."
That person is Deborah Greer, who joined the River Gallery in Chelsea in 2003. "We supported the art faculties of EMU, U-M, and the Center for Creative Studies," Greer says. "That's what ties me to Penny Stamps.
Most people working locally in the arts "don't have the time or the resources to travel nationally or internationally to stay attuned to what is happening in art and culture," Greer says. "Penny Stamps brought the world to our doorsteps.
"The Stamps lectures pulled together the academic and local arts and business communities. It created ties and links and possibilities ... I would say what Chrisstina and Penny have created could be used as a model for arts and cultural development all over the world."
Hamilton and Stamps became friends. They traveled together, and Stamps even took Hamilton to her beauty salon in Florida. "She went to the place where the Cuban women go," says Hamilton--and translated as Hamilton explained what she wanted done. (She'd learned Spanish after moving to Miami--"She would lie in bed at night conjugating verbs while I was reading," Roe recalls.)
Hamilton says the speaker series laid the foundation for the naming gift in 2012. "Penny just loved the series," she says. "It was the series that was the impetus to give more money."
The Stampses' $32.5 million naming gift--which the university matched with $7.5 million--supports a flock of "enhancement" programs, including the speaker series, the artist in residence program, and the Stamps Gallery downtown--Stamps was "adamant," Bankert says, that the art school needed more visibility on Central Campus.
It also includes $6 million for the Stamps Scholars--which, like the other programs, was already up and running by then. Alex Marston, now a Congressional staffer, was one of the first at Michigan in 2006. He recalls that the scholarship happened "through no part of my own doing."
Darwin Matthews, director of individual stewardship in the U-M development office, says that there are currently sixty-one Stamps scholars at the U-M; there are hundreds more at other schools around the country. Recipients don't apply--they're identified during the admissions process. "That information is sent to enrollment management for review, and from those nominated, the Office of Admissions selects and interviews and narrows the number of possible recipients," Matthews explains. "The chosen ones are sent letters."
"I'm a third-generation Michigan grad," says Marston, now thirty. But he had applied to other schools, and it was the Stamps scholarship that decided it.
Once the scholars were on campus, "the Stampses would do brunches or dinners and would spend time getting to know us," Marston recalls. "I didn't get a chance to know her super well, but just in the interactions I had with her it was clear that she was a strong person, very intelligent, and very passionate about encouraging curiosity and education among young people."
Marston graduated with a bachelor's in English and gave the student commencement speech at the Big House in 2010, the year Barack Obama spoke. "It was surreal and an out-of-body experience," he says. "I got to shake President Obama's hand." And thanks to the Stampses--and his family--he graduated debt free.
The Stamps money made the school more vital and more visible. So did the name itself.
Bankert says the renaming was a great opportunity to tell the story of the changes at Michigan. "We had a marketing plan done on how to really launch it and get the name out there," she recalls. "We all started with the 'Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design,' and then we got down to the 'Stamps School of Art & Design,' and then we just got down to 'Stamps.'"
Between the money, the snappy new name, and the new dean, says Bankert, "our admissions numbers started increasing. We could then choose much higher-level students, because we were getting many, many, many more applications. The quality of the student work has risen ... the faculty talk about it a lot."
Fundraising is up, too. "I really credit the name," Bankert says.
"It's the ripple effect."
Nadarajan echoes that in a video produced for the Stamps School's fifth anniversary. "Since the naming, we have become ranked as one of the top twenty hottest design schools in the country," the dean says. "It has really allowed us to be recognized among the other big brands out there."
While her name lives on, Stamps herself is missed. She took an active interest in the school, asking for news and what she could do to help. "I already have a list of things I want to ask her about," says Hamilton, who's putting together the first Penny Stamps Speaker Series without its creator's guidance.
Hamilton gave the eulogy at Penny's funeral. Roe was touched to see "a bunch of Stamps Scholars" in the church--they'd heard the news and had come at their own expense.
Bill Martin noticed that Roe--the Georgia Tech and Harvard grad--wore a Michigan tie. In lieu of flowers, the family suggested gifts to the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design.
This article has been edited since it was published in the February 2019 Ann Arbor Observer. A quote from Chrisstina Hamilton has been deleted.
[Originally published in February, 2019.]
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