Sisters leave fortune to preveterinary program

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Sisters Gladys Davis and Vivian Davis Michael yearned to have some influence in helping animals, and in veterinary medicine in Morgantown, W.Va. In bequeathing the largest private donation from individuals to West Virginia University in the institution's history, they may have just done that.

On Sept. 4, the university announced that a gift of more than $18.4 million, most of which, $16.2 million to be exact, was willed to the College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Consumer Sciences. Dean Cameron Hackney, at a ceremony renaming the college in honor of the sisters, spoke of the impact the money would have on the school, and the profession.

"In the future, leaders in veterinary science will be associated with WVU, which will help the university recruit resources and students in years to come," he said.

WVU does not have a veterinary school, but does have an agreement with The Ohio State University, the University of Georgia, and Tuskegee Institute that allows university graduates to attend without paying out-of-state tuition. The money going to the agriculture college will create the Davis-Michael Scholars Program in preveterinary medicine, fund a veterinarian position for academic and advising purposes, create endowed professorships for each of the college's five academic divisions, fund a new course on companion animals, fund library growth, and completely revamp the college's computer laboratory.

The Davis-Michael Scholars Program will award tuition waivers for students in the WVU program. In addition, scholarships will go to first-year veterinary students who have graduated through WVU's undergraduate program.

"That was the thing that was really gratifying; [the sisters] were trying to make sure the students were affected more than anything else," said Robert Dailey, PhD, expert in endocrinology and reproductive physiology, and professor of animal and veterinary science at WVU.

According to the sisters' attorney, John Patrick Ball, they grew up on a farm and amassed their wealth by wise investments from an inheritance left by their mother, Estelle Conaway Davis. Vivian Davis Michael, who graduated from WVU with undergraduate degrees in education and home economics, plus a master of arts degree, read the Wall Street Journal daily and invested in blue chip stocks. She was a civic leader who taught social studies in Monongalia County for 41 years. She was married briefly, but neither sister had any children.

"As they became older, they kept their pets around them as their companions, and felt that the pets needed good veterinary care, so they wanted to help educate veterinarians," Ball said in an interview with National Public Radio.

Gladys attended WVU but never finished her studies, preferring to care for the house and pets the sisters shared. Vivian died in 1998 at the age of 82, and Gladys died in January 2001 at the age of 88. She was survived by Ruby and Silver, 4-year-old Pekingese. Gladys began donating to WVU after her sister died, but refused public acknowledgement for her contributions.

According to West Virginia local newspaper, The Dominion Post, so far, 80 students have received scholarships and 20 WVU graduates have gone on to veterinary school.

Ball said that while he had handled financial affairs for the sisters, including arranging for the prior donations to WVU, he did not know the enormity of the wealth they would leave behind. They lived modestly, splurging only on a new Buick Riviera every four years, he said.

The university reports that, in total, the Davis sisters have bestowed a remarkable $19.7 million on WVU. In addition to the $16.2 million and the Conaway family farm the Davis sisters left the agriculture college, further funds from the estate, $1,191,000, will establish scholarships and refurbish property for the WVU College of Law. The College of Creative Arts received $1,524,000, and the WSU libraries received $250,000.