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A billionaire surprised graduates onstage with cash, but it's not all theirs to keep

Robert Hale (right) gives an envelope with cash to a graduating UMass Dartmouth student at last week's commencement. Each of the 1,200 graduates received $1,000 onstage, half to keep and half to donate.
Karl Christoff Dominey
University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
Robert Hale (right) gives an envelope with cash to a graduating UMass Dartmouth student at last week's commencement. Each of the 1,200 graduates received $1,000 onstage, half to keep and half to donate.

Graduating students at UMass Dartmouth left their commencement ceremony with more than just their diplomas, after one of the speakers surprised them with envelopes stuffed with hundreds of dollars in cash.

The caveat? It's not all theirs to keep.

"The greatest joys in life that we have experienced have come from giving," Robert Hale Jr. said onstage Thursday, referring to himself and his wife Karen. "We want to share that gift of giving with you today."

Hale, the billionaire co-founder and president of Massachusetts-based Granite Telecommunications — and a part owner of the Boston Celtics — was onstage during Thursday's rainy ceremony to accept the Chancellor's Medal for his philanthropic work.

And, unbeknownst to students, he was also there to do some of it.

In brief remarks, he praised students for their hard work despite the challenges of the pandemic, and, drawing from his own early-career experiences, urged them not to let failure define them.

Later, just as the chancellor was about to start conferring degrees, Hale returned to the podium and gently pushed him aside, saying his speech wasn't done. He and Karen, he said, wanted to celebrate the graduates by giving them $1,000 each.

Students emerged from under their umbrellas, erupting in thunderous cheers and applause. It went on for nearly a minute before Hale could cut back in.

"Listen, there's a stipulation — hang on!" he said. "The first $500 is our gift to you. The second $500 is for you to give to somebody else or another organization who could use it more than you."

As he spoke, security officers carried two black duffel bags onstage. They were filled with 3,000 envelopes, which he said were decorated by students at two local elementary schools, and labeled either "gift" or "give."

Within minutes, it was time for students to walk across the stage. One at a time, wearing rain ponchos and big smiles, they accepted their diplomas and their pair of envelopes.

Hale told NPR in a phone interview on Wednesday that it was exhilarating to be part of such a happy surprise and see the "unadulterated joy" on students' faces.

"These are kids who are working their tails off to be there," he said. "We all should be proud of them. And they could certainly use the gift, which is great."

Of the 1,200 students in the Class of 2024, 40% are first-generation and 31% are students of color, according to UMass Dartmouth.

Forbes estimates Hale's net worth at $5.4 billion, ranking him #203 on its list of 400 richest Americans. The 57-year-old's wealth has grown by $2.2 billion since he first made the list in 2022. And he's put much of it — over $270 million — toward charitable causes, including cancer research and educational institutions.

In fact, this isn't the first time he's rewarded graduates with cash for themselves and causes of their choice. Over the last three years, he pulled off the same surprise at Quincy College, Roxbury Community College and UMass Boston.

Hale said he and his wife came up with the idea when he was invited to give a commencement speech in the thick of the pandemic, as a way to celebrate and hopefully inspire students who had been through so much.

"Some of the most joyous times in our lives have been when we've had the chance to share," he explained. "And so we thought, if there's a way that we could create that seed within another generation where they would get to experience the joy of giving, then maybe that becomes something that they would strive to do and be accustomed to doing and make us all a little bit better along the way."

Students are donating the money to all sorts of causes

UMass Dartmouth students walked across the stage to accept their diplomas and cash, pictured on the table in the back.
Karl Christoff Dominey / University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
UMass Dartmouth students walked across the stage to accept their diplomas and cash, pictured on the table in the back.

While some university staff knew of the plan in the works, UMass Dartmouth spokesperson Ryan Merrill says it was a surprise to students and their guests.

And he's already heard from some students about where they're donating their money: a women's shelter, a children's theater organization and a fundraiser for a relative's cancer treatment.

For his part, Hale says he's heard anecdotal "tidbits" about where students have donated their money in the past.

He remembers that one graduate in previous years, a single mom, told him personally that she planned to give $100 to each of her five children.

"In the 20 minutes between when we made that announcement and she got to the stage she had made that decision and then shared it with me on the stage, which is pretty cool," he said.

He also learned from social media that one of this year's graduates donated her money to a local charity that provides holiday gifts to children. She herself had been a recipient years ago, he said.

"And so the day after she got $500, she brought it to them and gave it to them," he said. "And the [director] said, 'We raise good kids, don't we?' "

Hale's advice for the new graduates — and anyone considering philanthropy — is to pick a cause that's important to them, and ideally one that they can continue to support in the long-term through annual or otherwise frequent gifts.

"To me, that's the key ingredient, is how important it is to you," he said, pointing to his own focus on children and education. "Everybody has somewhat limited resources. So if you're sharing them, it better be something that tugs at your heartstrings."

(Here are some more expert tips on how to give smartly and sustainably.)

Hale remained coy when asked about his future plans, but said giving to college graduates is "a blast" and that it seems "pretty probable" the couple will continue to do so.

Especially after this year, he added, they have no shortage of invitations.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.