Sometimes, the exercise of philanthropy is rooted in a very simple concept: “Thank you.”
For Dick Gadomski, it’s summed up this way: “Christian Brothers changed my life, it’s as simple as that.”
When he arrived at then Christian Brothers College in the late 1950s, there wasn’t much, at first glance, that would give much hope. He was an inner-city kid from Chicago and neither of his parents graduated from high school. He got, as he says, the good fortune to go to a parochial grammar school and then a Christian Brothers high school. But he graduated with only a 1.98 average, less than a C.
“I didn’t care about school,” Gadomski says, who worked 32 hours a week during his junior and senior years. “And I didn’t think I was college material.” But his homeroom teacher thought otherwise and convinced him to go to CBC. “I studied more my first semester of my freshman year in college than I studied in four years in high school,” he says, “and actually passed everything.”
You might think it was a clean launch to a stellar academic experience and his subsequent entrepreneurial career — but no. “Then, I was a wise guy,” he admits with a trace of embarrassment. “I thought I knew everything and started cutting classes. CBU allowed me to take 14 hours over again the next semester.”
There was always someone who saw something in the youngster. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without three Christian Brothers being in my life,” Gadomski says. “The first one was Brother Philip Hogan, a chemistry teacher in high school. He made chemistry fun and exciting, a fabulous teacher. We would goof off in class and he would throw erasers at us, saying, ‘OK, Gadomski, we’re gonna make chlorine this afternoon and I’m gonna use the exhaust system.’ You’d have tears coming down your eyes making chlorine in a lab. He was my favorite teacher.”
The homeroom teacher — the one who convinced Gadomski to go to Memphis — was Cyprian Moriarty, a Christian Brothers High School graduate from Memphis. Gadomski almost blew it though. “I earned a trip my senior year in Chicago,” he says. “I got a bottle of scotch with six of my roommates, and got caught.” Weeks before graduation and Brother Cyprian recommended kicking him out. But the principal, Brother L. Paul McGinnis, decided that forgiveness was the way to go. Three Brothers who all shaped the young man’s life to come.
Even with some academic bumps at CBC, Gadomski loved being there. “It’s a small school where I lived in an extended family environment,” he says. “It was all boys at the time, and we all hung out together. Whether you were a freshman or a senior it didn’t make any difference. I got involved on the student newspaper as a freshman. Sophomore year I was working on planning student parties. Junior year I was a class officer. Junior and senior years I was involved and became president of the student chapter of the American Chemical Society.” He also chaired the athletic program for the intramural program, arranging for teams and coaches, and learned an indelible lesson: “If you get volunteers to do things, you must have some management ability. When I came out of there I felt like my mind was like a steel trap, it was so quick.”
He also came out of CBC in 1962 with a new wife. He’d met Dolores , a student at CBC’s sister school, Siena College, and he credits her with pushing him to be serious about life.
From there, Gadomski took on a series of jobs, each one giving him invaluable knowledge and abilities that would launch him into a rising career and simultaneously providing him with philanthropic expertise. Out of college he became a rocket scientist, going into the aerospace industry at North American Aviation, and realized he could compete with anybody because of his education. In the late 1960s, he returned to Memphis and got a job with Humko, a division of Kraft that made vegetable oil. “I was into chemicals — I was an engineering and chemistry major — and this really made me into an engineer,” he says. “I got to do whole processes and that turned me on as an engineer.”
When his father-in-law died, Gadomski felt a change of scenery was important to him and his family. He took a job with BASF Corporation in Germany as an instrument engineer. Then they needed people to do process work, so he became a process engineer. That led in 1974 to a phone call from a former classmate who said, “Cargill wants to build a plant in Memphis. You know how to do this stuff, don’t you? Come down and make a pitch for us.”
Gadomski went but with little hope of success. “I said, ‘These guys are never gonna give a grassroots plant to a green engineering company.’ I made the pitch, and they gave us the job on the spot, and I could not believe it.” That enterprise, a $50 million corn processing plant, became Process Systems Incorporated (PSI) and he ran it until 2001.
The new job also provided an important reconnection with his city and his alma mater. “I got a hamburger and an order of fries, and I was sitting on the stairs at the administration building at CBU, and I realized, ‘I’m home.’”
Gadomski got more involved, first with the Alumni Association thanks to Lance Forsdick, another alumnus who has long been involved in Christian Brothers University and who groomed him to take his place. “I chaired alumni fundraising for five years,” he says. I had a co-chair, and together we organized alumni fundraising at CBU. Then Lance got me on the board, because he’d become chairman of the board and he groomed me to take his place there. I arrived here in 1974 and by 1984 I was chairman of the board of Christian Brothers University. I’ve had three board terms, a total of 28 years. The Brothers continue to change my life.”
The story of his philosophy of philanthropy begins with his parents, both of whom worked and although they weren’t rich, they were giving. That and his work ethic carried over into his enterprises. “I ran a business and we were always philanthropic; it just came out of me,” Gadomski says. “I make my money here, I’m going to support the community here.” And he made sure his employees were involved. When he would do fundraising at the corporate level, “50 percent of what we did I picked out what we’re going to do and the other 50 percent the employees picked out. We got involved in all kinds of different things and when you looked at our results, we were in the top 10 givers to the community on a per employee basis. I expected everybody to be involved and I empowered people and encouraged them.”
In 1998, Gadomski sold PSI to the German conglomerate Lurgi. He was to stay on another five years but soon after the sale, his wife Dolores was diagnosed with cancer. After she died in 2000, “I asked to bail out,” he says, “because I was a mess and I didn’t even want to work, I just wanted to reboot.” He left in 2001 and got his life back in order. “I ended up meeting my current wife, Florence Smith, and now have been focused on philanthropy, getting up every day and asking, ‘What can I do good for CBU?’” He was involved in hiring all of the presidents since Brother Theodore Drahmann, “so from 1980 to now I’ve been on all the presidential searches.” Although, he says, not next time. “Younger people need to be doing this stuff.”
Gadomski can rattle off CBU’s achievements, starting with the current president, Brother John Smarrelli Jr. “Everybody knows CBU today because of John,” he says. “He’s on about eight different boards. He’s had vision, and our university’s growing, but we’re up almost 30 percent in enrollment the last three years, we have new programs, and we’ve done exciting things to help the community.”
Those successes include giving life to the Maxine Smith STEAM Academy (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) across from CBU at the old Fairview Middle School, and then the Middle College High School, both closely entwined with CBU. That success has led to a teaching facility at Crosstown where there will be a new high school. Also, Collierville Schools and CBU are developing a partnership with IBM to implement a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education program for K-12.
Gadomski has also been involved in the March of Dimes, Youth Villages, United Way, Church of the Holy Spirit, and a variety of youth sports programs.
His biggest passion, though, is reflected in the name of the Gadomski School of Engineering. “I’m excited about CBU because we’ve got a fabulous reputation in engineering. Because this has been our starting point as a school, we’ve built ourselves on engineering,” he says. “But we’ve got now a real strong science and pre-med program and we’ve got one of the highest acceptance rates in the region for med school.” Like a proud father, he’ll give you the statistics on how well the school is doing.
“I find that my interests are to keep the Brothers reputation going, and make this School of Engineering the best it could be,” he says. “I work with a great leader, Dr. Siripong Malasri, who heads up the School of Engineering and is just a dynamic dean. He’s the most visionary, most entrepreneurial, he’s always got ideas. I love people with ideas, so my job is to fund his dreams.”
Gadomski’s current passion is CBU’s ambitious capital campaign, called Faith In Progress: The Campaign for Advancing Education. It started in 2015 and in making plans, he thought they’d need $39 million although he was concerned that was a bit too ambitious. CBU hired a consultant who did the research and reported back. “He said, ‘We think we can raise $70 million.’ I about fell off my chair.” How’s it going so far? The transformative campaign has about four years to go and according to projections, “When we announced the campaign, we said we’d be at $47 million now,” Gadomski says. “And we’re at $47 million.”
As the campaign goes full speed ahead, the board is figuring the priorities, but among them are additions to enhance student life. “There’s a modification of a library for that purpose, there’s an engineering laboratory project because of the growth of the engineering school, then there’s possibly a visitor’s center,” Gadomski says.
It’s a full plate and the thoughtful philanthropist continues to dig in. And that’s how you say “Thank You” when somebody changes your life.