COLLEGE PARK -- Construction magnate A. James Clark has promised to give $15 million to the engineering school at the University of Maryland, the largest private donation, by far, to a public university in the state.
The money comes from a 1950 graduate who attended the engineering school on a state scholarship and went on to make a fortune constructing buildings on campus and across the nation.
News of the gift, announced yesterday at a post-commencementceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the engineering school, left a group of about 100 faculty and students in stunned silence.
The engineering school will be named for Mr. Clark, who heads Bethesda-based Clark Construction Group Inc.
"I think it's already a great engineering school, and I think it's going to be getting a lot better," Mr. Clark, 66, said in an interview. "It's nice to work with your own alma mater."
Public institutions such as the University of Maryland "need the funding just like private institutions do," Mr. Clark said. "I hope this encourages other people to do more for it."
University officials compared the gift with a benchmark $1.7 million contribution to the school 50 years ago by aviation pioneer Glenn L. Martin. Income from the Martin gift has provided young engineering faculty members with research grants and equipment.
Mr. Clark said he had purposely attached no strings except to specify his gift go to the school's endowment.
The gift will be applied on several fronts, including the recruitment of female and minority students and recruitment and retention of top faculty, said Engineering Dean George E. Dieter. It will also provide permanent funding for a highly regarded freshman design course that is now paid for by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
"It's the extra margin that makes the difference in excellence," Dr. Dieter said. "That's really what this is about."
The College of Engineering has about 3,000 undergraduates, 1,500graduate students and 180 full-time faculty.
"We are deeply grateful for Mr. Clark's generosity, which will significantly affect the course of engineering education for generations to come," said University President William E. Kirwan.
Mr. Clark's two largest firms, George Hyman Construction Co. and OMNI Construction Inc., have built many buildings familiar to Marylanders, such as Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the USAir Arena in Landover, and L'Enfant Plaza in Washington.
With more than $1 billion in annual revenues last year, Mr. Clark's construction enterprise ranked in the top 10 nationally in the size of its building contracts. Among current projects are convention centers in Los Angeles and Chicago.
The publicity-shy Mr. Clark is an admitted workaholic who commutes by helicopter from his estate near Easton to his office in Bethesda.
He came by helicopter yesterday to the announcement of the gift, which coincided with the 100th anniversary of the engineering college.
"One of the advantages of the 100th anniversary celebration is it allows us to ask for some special gifts," Dr. Dieter said. "So we worked on up to it. And we were delighted that he responded in such a large way."
Mr. Clark has kept ties with the university since he earned his degree 44 years ago.
In all, the companies Mr. Clark now owns have constructed 19 campus buildings, including the McKeldin Library, several dormitories and the chapel. He served on the Board of Regents for six years and contributed funds to establish a professorship in construction engineering several years ago.
"The whole picture of College Park is encouraging," Mr. Clark said.
"You've got a global competition now, and most of the developments in that competition are done in engineering," Mr. Clark said. "I think this may help in our state and our country."
Mr. Clark's gift is three times larger than the $5 million given last year to the business school by beer importer Leo Van Munching Jr., another member of the class of 1950, and his wife, Margaret. The gift had been the college's biggest private contribution.
Here are some of the largest gifts to colleges in the University of Maryland System since 1988, when the system began a capital campaign:
* A. James Clark. $15 million. University of Maryland College Park.
* Martha Gudelsky: $5 million. University of Maryland Medical System.
* Leo and Margaret Van Munching Jr.: $5 million. University of Maryland College Park.
* Richard A. Henson: $4.5 million. Salisbury State University and University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
* A. Vaugn Williams: $4.5 million. University of Maryland College Park.
* Franklin P. Perdue: $3.5 million. Salisbury State University.
* Ralph J. Tyser: $3.5 million. University of Maryland College Park.
* Charles and Martha Fulton: $2.5 million. Salisbury State University.