Philanthropist keeps memories of fallen youth alive through scholarships

Michael Mahoney

J. Michael Mahoney (Jose Rodriguez photo)

Soon after J. Michael Mahoney learned of the death of Phoebe Prince, a Massachusetts teenager who committed suicide in January after suffering from merciless bullying, he contacted the University of California, Berkeley, to establish a $50,000 endowed scholarship in Prince’s name.

The Phoebe Prince Memorial Scholarship Endowment Fund marks the 24th scholarship Mahoney has established at UC Berkeley, a remarkable record from a single benefactor. Each of his scholarships, collectively valued at more than $9 million, commemorates a young life cut short.

“The theme of all my scholarships at Cal is young people who died at an early age tragically or through sickness,” said Mahoney, 81, a resident of Larkspur. “The main motivation of mine is to keep their lives going, in a way. Their name can go on and on in scholarships that help other people.”

Mahoney said his Irish heritage made him feel a special kinship toward Prince, a 15-year-old who had moved to America from Ireland less than half a year before her death. “I had followed the story in the news, and it made me furious. It was a horrifying case,” he said. As if to punctuate this affinity, a framed photo of Prince even sits on a living room table among dozens of other pictures of family and friends in Mahoney’s modest home.

Mahoney endowed his first scholarship at UC Berkeley in 1990 to honor his younger daughter’s best friend, Lisa Ann Rist, who had died a decade earlier in a car accident at the age of 17.

“I had been thinking for years about what I could do after the death, which was a traumatic event for my family and (the Rist) family, and then a light bulb went off,” said Mahoney. “I thought, ‘I can establish a scholarship in her name.'”

That initial scholarship led to 20 more designated for UC Berkeley undergraduates, as well as three funds for graduate students at the School of Public Health.

To date, more than 1,500 UC Berkeley students have benefitted from Mahoney’s scholarships, including LeConté Dill, who recently became the first recipient of the Phoebe Prince fund. Dill is entering her third year in public health as a doctoral student whose focus is on adolescent health, risk factors and resilience.

“It strikes me that the case of Phoebe Prince occurred in a small, New England city,” said Dill, who said the $2,500 she has received from the fund will help support her research. “It illustrates that the need for a strong social support system to prevent such outcomes isn’t limited to an inner-city urban environment. Whether it’s through members of the school district, one’s family or other adults in the community, a support network is needed to provide attention and resources to young people.”

At the School of Public Health, Mahoney’s other scholarships are in memory of Emily Dion, an 8-year-old Vallejo girl who was killed while trying to protect her mother in a violent attack, and Christina Marie Williams, a 13-year-old girl whose body was found seven months after she disappeared while walking her dog near her family’s home in Seaside, Calif.

Mahoney said he finds the inspiration for his scholarships through the news, of which he is an avid consumer. His interest in the news seems fitting given that his father, Daniel J. Mahoney Sr., was a Miami newspaper publisher. As a young man, Mahoney worked at a number of newspapers, starting out at a local paper in Springfield, Ohio, before moving on to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Mahoney retired from the news business and moved out to California in 1968 after coming into a family inheritance, which has made it possible for him to extend his generosity. He has established a total of 50 scholarships around the country, including the 24 at UC Berkeley and 26 at schools including the University of Idaho, Phillips Exeter Academy, the University of Florida and Princeton University, his alma mater.

Mahoney expressed special interest in helping out UC Berkeley.

“It’s a great public university, one of the greatest in the world, and I’m so proud of it,” said Mahoney. “I just admire the whole idea of a public university, and how it takes students from all walks of life who want a good education.”

With 65 percent of UC Berkeley undergraduates receiving some form of financial aid, scholarships play a crucial role in ensuring that the campus enrolls the best students, regardless of their ability to pay, said Vice Chancellor of University Relations Scott Biddy.

“Support for scholarships is such a core investment in our future by our donors — these gifts provide the opportunity of a lifetime to so many remarkable students,” Biddy said. “In that sense, Mike Mahoney’s generosity will have a deep and lasting impact. His scholarships honor young lives cut short and renew the promise that was lost. They will extend that promise to future generations of Berkeley students who will go on to achieve their dreams and make a difference in the world.”

“It would be wonderful if anyone who feels deeply about Phoebe Prince’s story could also contribute to the fund,” added Mahoney. “And no matter what you can contribute, every little bit helps.”

Individuals interested in donating to the Phoebe Prince fund can go to the Give to Cal site to donate to the Phoebe Prince Memorial Scholarship Endowment Fund.