$11 Million Gift Benefits Investing in Student Success Initiative

Tom Cotter ’53, ’55 says the times have certainly changed since his experience as a young man attending college.

Now, reflecting on the lifetime of opportunities he has enjoyed, Cotter has decided to leave UM approximately $11 million in his will. The gift will fund scholarships for students who graduate from Montana high schools. It’s a big show of support for UM’s Investing in Student Success initiative, launched by President Royce Engstrom last summer.

“This is an incredible step toward providing resources for Montana high school students who wish to pursue a degree at the University of Montana,” says President Engstrom. “It is such a generous gift, and one that dramatically influences UM’s ability to recruit and support Montana high school students. Tom Cotter and his family will forever change the lives of many people through this generosity and foresight.”

Growing up on a ranch near Townsend, Mont., in the 1930s, Cotter helped his parents raise livestock and farm the land of west central Montana.

“My parents were hard workers,” he says. “I saw their work ethic and came to learn about expectations. Back then, in a rural community, we would walk one and a quarter mile one way to school every day. Growing up on the land, and without the simple luxuries of running water, plumbing, electricity— this is where I came from and how I was shaped.”

Tom Cotter

In 1945, knowing he wasn’t old enough to enlist in the Army, Cotter joined the Merchant Marines. He was all of 16 years old.

“I dropped out of high school and shipped out to the Pacific on a Liberty ship,” says Cotter. “We had war cargo, and going to the Marshall Islands, we joined a convoy that steamed north on a zigzag course to Okinawa. That was the last big battle of World War II. After the war ended, I had to come home and honor the promise I had made to my parents to finish high school.”

After graduation, Cotter wanted to see more of the world and shipped out again, this time as a deckhand on a freighter. For fifteen months he traveled around the world, eventually deciding it was time to enroll in college. He chose UM for both his undergraduate and graduate education.

“After I received my master’s degree from the University of Montana, I served as a special agent in the Army Counterintelligence Corps for two years,” he says. “Then I was off to the Boeing Company in Seattle, where I worked for nine years in human resources.”

During a stint for Boeing that took him to Cheyenne, Wyo., Cotter decided to try his hand at financial planning on the weekends. He liked the work and decided to make a career of it, joining Merrill Lynch in 1965. Eventually, he would join the investment firm that would become Franklin Templeton, retiring after 20 years of service.

After trailblazing new markets in the investment industry, his family settled in Palo Alto, Calif., where Tom and his wife, Neva, still reside today. Their daughter, Mary Ann, graduated from Palo Alto High School and then followed in her father’s footsteps by attending UM. A 1995 graduate, she is now a member of the UM Foundation President’s Club.

At age 84, Tom still enjoys alpine skiing and volunteer work. He also stays involved with the Cotter Charitable Foundation, through which the family makes grants to at least 50 different entities annually.

“My father and mother were generous people, almost to a fault,” he says. “I think that helped me as much as anything, living in a family that looked out for the indigent. During the Depression, they would bring food to needy people, and we could see it as children. That parental influence was very important to us.”

Looking back on his experiences, Cotter realizes how much his education affected his success.

“I never could have made it without my education, and I want to see if I can help upgrade the situations of students who want the chance to learn,” he says. “I have such a love for Montana and the University and have always felt that students could be very good recipients of my money.”

After a lifetime of opportunities, Cotter lives by an ethic of generosity that reflects an important legacy he will leave for the next generation.

“You know the old saying, ‘You can’t take it with you when you die’?” Cotter says. “There’s a lot of truth to that. It’s amazing how many very wealthy people die with their boots on and their assets locked away.”

Watch a video of Cotter explaining how his upbringing influenced his decision to give: 

Watch a video of the gift announcement event in San Francisco: