David Thomas ’62 Chose to Leave Everything to Swarthmore—Even the Cat

By Amanda Whitbred

Photo of David Thomas ’62
David Thomas ’62

David Thomas ’62 had many hobbies, including flying, weaving, and woodworking. But it was his love of playing the pipe organ that led Thomas to build a friendship with Roger Inkpen.

“I met David through his organ instructor, who was also a client of mine,” says Inkpen. “I was looking for someone to help me with my pipe organ maintenance business, doing invoices and monthly accounting.” Thomas agreed to help, and the two worked together for more than a decade until Thomas decided to give up the job due to health issues.

“David and I had become friends by that point,” says Inkpen. “So even after he stopped working, I would call him nearly every week—especially on Saturdays when he used to come over to do the accounting.”

In 2013 Thomas asked Inkpen to be the executor of his estate, which he left in its entirety to Swarthmore. Knowing he would be survived only by his siblings, Thomas decided to relieve his family of the burden of dismantling his estate and put his faith in the College’s ability to appropriately manage the intricacies of his bequest.

When Thomas died in November 2017, his estate included a significant amount of property, including a car, real estate, artwork, the contents of his home, and even his 17-year-old cat Bernie.

Swarthmore helped Inkpen find a local real estate agent to assist with the sale of the house and its contents. The College also collaborated with an auction company, financial advisors, and attorneys to help settle the estate’s affairs and make sure Thomas’s philanthropic goals were realized. And, most important, a home was found for Bernie.

Inkpen realized he wasn’t quite prepared for how much work being the executor would be, so he was grateful for the professional advice and guidance he received from the College. In January members of Swarthmore’s individual giving team traveled to Palo Alto, California, to meet with Inkpen and visit Thomas’s home. Jessica Cunningham ’08, former assistant director of individual giving, soon became a friend in addition to being Inkpen’s main point of contact at the College.

“Roger was a fantastic partner and true pleasure to work with. He played a critical role in the successful engagement of and collaboration with various professionals, all while juggling his hectic business schedule,” says Cunningham. “The College is deeply appreciative of Roger’s time and dedication to ensure that Swarthmore realized the full generosity of David’s bequest.”

“As tough and time-consuming as this process has been,” says Inkpen, “I could not have done it all by myself, to be sure. I’m so grateful for all of the help I’ve received over these many months thus far.”

Proceeds from Thomas’s estate will go into Swarthmore’s general endowment—a pool of investments made up of gifts and bequests by donors, funds allocated by the College, and accumulated interest, dividends, and capital appreciations. The endowment, which grows over time, contributes in perpetuity to the operating budget of the College and safeguards the institution from economic and political forces. Some donors choose to restrict their gifts to specific purposes at the College; others, like Thomas, do not. Unrestricted assets can be used to support any aspect of the College’s mission, such as scholarships, professorships, academic support, or general operating expenses. In fiscal year 2017–18, the endowment covered 48 percent of College expenses.

Thomas’s generosity and foresight highlight the impact and importance of legacy gifts to the College. Swarthmore is committed to both need-blind admissions and meeting the full financial needs of all admitted students, which requires significant resources. As the student body becomes increasingly socioeconomically diverse, the College’s financial aid needs have grown. By choosing to leave his gift to the general endowment, Thomas helped to build the College’s financial strength and allowed Swarthmore to expand its mission for the benefit of current and future generations of talented students.

The experience of being Thomas’s executor has also allowed Inkpen to get to know more about his late friend.

“You never fully know a person until you’ve gone through every last one of their possessions and really discover their history, their talents, and their friends,” he says.

While Inkpen knew Thomas had spent his career as a mass spectrometrist at Stanford Research Institute, he didn’t know much about Thomas’s time at Swarthmore—where he studied chemistry and had fond memories of playing the pipe organ—or that he had a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from MIT.

“I’m truly grateful to have gotten to know my friend David more deeply through this process,” says Inkpen. “He was truly a very smart and great man.”

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