Jack Gilbert didn't graduate from high school, much less college, but these days he's the big man on campus.
The self-made Oxnard millionaire has pledged the largest gift in California Lutheran University's history, a $5-million cash infusion designed to boost a building campaign at the Thousand Oaks campus.
The donation adds to the more than $4 million that Gilbert, founder of the TOLD Corp. construction firm, has given the university since 2002 to support modernization at the 46-year-old campus.
"The university is at a critical stage in its development and we want to help it along," said Gilbert, 84, who pledged the money with his wife, Carol. "We hope to encourage others to give."
Taken together, Gilbert's $9-million contribution adds up to one of the most generous philanthropic acts in Ventura County's history.
In recent years, Oxnard rancher John S. Broome and developer Martin V. "Bud" Smith each gave $5 million to Cal State Channel Islands, near Camarillo. Broome's donation provided seed money for the construction of a new library and media center, and Smith's endowment is being used for student scholarships and faculty enrichment.
More recently, Simi Valley attorney James C. Basile bequeathed $6 million for an independent scholarship fund in his name open to students countywide.
Gilbert's $5-million pledge, announced last week, will be used for campus improvements, including construction of a president's residence for entertaining potential donors and holding university events.
Gilbert's initial donation is helping to build an athletic complex, which is scheduled to open in fall 2006 and will bear Gilbert's name.
"It's a wonderful gift," said Hugh Ralston, president of the Ventura County Community Foundation, which develops and administers charitable funds. "Here you have someone who not only cares about the university, but who is willing to put something into the game."
The latest donation comes at a good time for Cal Lutheran. The private university recently completed a successful capital campaign, setting a fundraising goal of $80 million and coming away with $93 million. The money is funding the athletic complex, an education technology center, scholarships and university endowments.
With enrollment reaching a record 3,100 students this school year, university officials are beginning to look at future needs, including new academic buildings and student dormitories.
"Every great university, I think, has been developed in large part by the philanthropic generosity of great individuals, people with vision," said R. Stephen Wheatly, Cal Lutheran's vice president for university advancement. "People like Jack Gilbert, who see what we are but also see what we have the potential of becoming."
Gilbert, a Cal Lutheran regent from 1994 to 1997, has been involved with the campus for 20 years and was honored in 1990 with an honorary doctor of laws degree.
The entrepreneur made his first fortune with a small sheet metal shop in Burbank, moved to Ventura County in 1973 and flourished through the construction of hundreds of office, industrial and high-tech buildings. Now he's ready to give back.
"As you get a little older, you see the world a little differently and you realize that education is really the thing that can solve a lot of our problems," Gilbert said. "They have an opportunity to build something really special there. I'd rather put my money, while I'm alive, toward something that can accomplish a lot of good."