By Molly Williamson
Margot McCullers knows the power of suggestion. As she was reading her alumnae magazine for Mount Holyoke College, she saw that one of her classmates had recently created an endowment.
That story opened up a world of possibilities for McCullers and the people she has benefited in the last 15 years. A UK employee since 1972, McCullers began working in research administration in 1980, where she developed relationships that shaped her giving over the next few years.
“The best part about setting up an endowment is you can designate how you want the money spent,” McCullers said. “That is what is so empowering about it. You might want to help students or beautify the campus. People set up endowments for all sorts of reasons, and it is nice to have the freedom to do so.”
Increasing the university’s endowment is a primary goal of UK’s $2.1 billion campaign. Kentucky Can: The 21st Century Campaign will ensure the longevity of the university, supporting scholarships and opportunities for students, innovative research, advanced health care, athletics and alumni programming.
By growing the university’s endowment to $2.1 billion, UK can make college more affordable, equip buildings with the latest technology, address Kentucky’s health disparities and train more physicians through regional College of Medicine campuses.
Endowed funds also allow donors like McCullers to honor their loved ones. She first created the Henry and Josephine Duysen Scholarship for Education Abroad in her parents’ names. Her father emigrated from Germany, and he took her back when she was 3 and 10 and sent her abroad as a graduation present. As a first-generation student, she wanted to give preference to students who were the first in their family to graduate from college, because for many of the recipients, studying abroad was the first time they were able to leave Kentucky.
“Traveling abroad was a wonderful opportunity for me, and I felt it would be a wonderful opportunity for other students to enjoy other cultures,” McCullers said. “I felt like I could make a difference in their lives, no matter how small.”
Next, she created a scholarship in honor of her husband, Levis D. McCullers, a former UK assistant professor of accounting. A nontraditional student, he grew up in rural northern Florida, where he began working at State Farm after high school. A smart man, he never planned to attend college until his employer offered to pay for classes related to his job. He began taking accounting classes at night and fell in love with learning. After seven years, taking classes on a part-time basis, he earned his undergraduate degree from Jacksonville University and later his master’s and Ph.D. from the University of Florida.
In 2010, she created the Levis D. McCullers Undergraduate scholarship, benefiting students 25 years or older. A recent recipient was Angela Chester, a U.S. navy veteran who works in the Veterans Resource Center and tutors students through Student Support Services. The mother of two children is using scholarships like McCullers’ to begin a new life. She is studying biology with a minor in mathematics and physics and hopes to eventually become a high school teacher.
“It is a good feeling to pay it forward,” McCullers said. “My husband always said education, it is something that cannot be lost or taken away. That is why we wanted to provide funds for students at all different levels. Sometimes it just takes a little nudge to have a tremendous impact, to give the student self-confidence and an opportunity to succeed.”
Lastly, she endowed the Levis D. and Margot D. McCullers Fund for Research and Education on Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias to help a doctoral student studying Alzheimer’s or related diseases in the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging. McCullers has worked with research faculty since 1980 and helped write a grant for the Sanders-Brown laboratories. Plus, her husband died of Alzheimer’s shortly after she endowed the scholarship in his name.
“Alzheimer’s is an insidious disease that is heartbreaking for the individuals and their families,” McCullers said. “I wanted to support research in that area to prevent other families from experiencing that devastating loss.”
Innovative research is also an emphasis of the Kentucky Can campaign. It will support research teams focused on improving Kentuckians’ overall health as well as attracting and retaining top researchers like Yuriko Katsumata. The McCullers scholarship helped fund her trip to the 21st annual International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics World Conference, a prestigious conference for the top researchers and clinicians around the world studying geriatrics and gerontology.
Now a research assistant professor at UK, Katsumata finished her doctoral dissertation and earned a Ph.D. in epidemiology and biostatistics in December 2017. She is studying Alzheimer’s in the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging to identify the risk factors for the disease to prevent others from contracting it.
“The aging population in Japan continues to dramatically increase,” Katsumata said. “To improve the quality of life for older people, we must continue to study and identify the risk factors for age-related diseases. Alzheimer’s is a common type of dementia, and it imposes a severe burden on patients as well as caregivers, but the exact cause is still unknown. By identifying the risk factors, I hope to prevent others from getting Alzheimer’s.”
Without the award, Katsumata could not have attended the conference, where she learned about new studies and approaches to geriatrics and gerontology research.
“I learned the latest biological research findings on dementia, new methodology for controlling survival bias in a cohort study for older people and genetic association results on dementia in other countries,” Katsumata said. “Attending an international conference is a great opportunity to broaden our viewpoints, which can lead to a breakthrough. Education is the most important factor in success for students and researchers, and giving a gift like this can allow donors to connect to a university and contribute to great research that can make a difference internationally.”
McCullers has continued her love of giving by becoming a member of the Women & Philanthropy Network, where she helps to select grant recipients every year, providing people and programs new opportunities through her generosity.