A Healthier Community: The Caring Legacy of J. Robert and Mary Jane Donnelly

Categories: COMMUNITY CARE: Health & Hunger, Donors, Donor Story,

When J. Robert and Mary Jane Donnelly moved to Nokomis, Florida in 1987 from Republic, Michigan, they fell in love with their new home and the many possibilities to engage their community on a deeper level.

“They had a lovely home on the water, and they really enjoyed interacting with the community, boating and being involved,” says Chip Gaylor, an attorney with Muirhead, Gaylor, Steves & Waskom, LLP who serves as an advisor for the late couple’s fund along with Gaylor’s father, Bill, who had been a close friend of the Donnellys.

So much did the Donnellys admire the area that after Mary Jane’s death on Feb. 10, 2018, which followed J. Robert’s passing on September 26, 2005, the J. Robert Donnelly and Mary Jane Donnelly Charitable Fund was established at the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Today, their philanthropic legacy continues, benefiting the causes and community they were so fond of.

Robert Donnelly graduated from the University of Connecticut in 1941 and went on to serve in the U.S. Army Air Forces from 1941 to 1946. Soon after in 1950, he earned his Juris Doctor degree from Ohio State University’s law school and had a successful career as an attorney in Dayton, Ohio. Mary Jane—who was known as “M.J.”— worked with her family’s tire manufacturing company.

While the couple did not have any children, one of the causes they cared for was education, Gaylor notes. Also avid travelers, the Donnellys were committed to environmental conservation and animal welfare, which their fund continues to support today. In less than five years, this support has translated into some 20 grants totaling more than $400,000.

Inspiring Hope through Healthcare Services

In addition to animals, environment, and education, the legacy of J. Robert and Mary Jane Donnelly has centered on health and healthcare services, particularly those organizations helping individuals with cancer, arthritis, Parkinson’s Disease, and macular degeneration, a condition with which Mary herself suffered from during her lifetime.

From St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to the Arthritis Foundation, the Donnellys’ charitable giving has touched more than five local healthcare organizations, but no more than so than Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation.

Recently, the fund donated $100,000 to the Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation and named the third-floor staff lounge in the Brian D. Jellison Cancer Institute’s Oncology Tower.

“The vision for the Cancer Institute was rooted in the belief that no one should have to leave home to receive comprehensive cancer care,” Ticia Mahler, director of communications for the Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation, points out.

The new Oncology Tower is a state-of-the-art facility that brings inpatient and surgical cancer care services together under one roof on SMH-Sarasota’s main campus, she adds.

“Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation’s Leading with Care campaign has helped SMH realize its vision through generous gifts such as the one from the J. Robert Donnelly and Mary Jane Donnelly Charitable Fund,” says Mahler. “Supporting the third-floor staff lounge is an acknowledgement of the incredible care the cancer team provides.”

Mahler notes the lounge is a large, modern and comfortable space where hospital staff can retreat to relax and recharge during work breaks, something Gaylor says would have resonated with the Donnellys.

“We know how hard healthcare workers work, what their jobs are and what they’ve taken on and most recently dealing with cancer patients,” says Gaylor of the healthcare staff at Sarasota Memorial Hospital.

The lounge “gives them a nice respite for the type of work that they’re doing,” he adds.

“We are so grateful for the lasting generosity of the Donnellys, ” says Mahler. “Together we are helping bring hope home for cancer patients and their families.”

Encompassing Hearts: Total Wellbeing

A hallmark of the Donnellys’ philanthropic spirit lies in the diversity of causes it seeks to strengthen.

The Donnellys’ legacy giving is supportive of organizations that focus on human needs and ways to alleviate personal challenges of the individuals and families who will ultimately benefit from the support.

For example, the J. Robert Donnelly and Mary Jane Donnelly Charitable Fund recently provided a $10,000 grant to the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge fishing challenge hosted by the Sarasota Yacht Club, an event which drew 20 veterans from around the country.

Gaylor shared that cognitive studies are conducted on the participants before and after each challenge to help further medical, physiological, biomedical and pathological sciences knowledge associated with their injuries. Data collected on the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge expeditions is added to a collection of case studies conducted with the organization’s medical partners, leading to breakthrough gains in the fields of traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress, orthotics, and prosthetics.

Robert and Mary Jane Donnelly’s definition of well-being also extended to animals, and their philanthropic efforts have reflected that.

“They were conservationists and very concerned about animal welfare, so we’ve supported environmental issues such as the World Wildlife Fund and the National Audubon Society,” says Gaylor. Locally, the fund has also enhanced red tide research at Mote Marine Laboratory.

Gaylor notes that Robert and Mary Jane Donnelly also were “huge” supporters of Ohio State University and the University of Connecticut, a driving factor in their philanthropic legacies. Robert served as captain for the University of Connecticut’s football and basketball teams, and the J. Robert Donnelly Husky Heritage Sports Museum bears his name and documents and celebrates the university’s intercollegiate athletics.

Gaylor says with the Donnellys’ fund being relatively new, there are plenty of opportunities to build upon the efforts – and momentum for change – it has funded to date through the Community Foundation.

“We will be making additional grants in the future,” he says. “That’s the power of legacy giving – depending on someone’s interests, there are many options to express their philanthropy.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of Scene Magazine.