A diploma wasn’t the only exciting piece of paper University of Denver graduates walked away with after their commencement Saturday morning.
In addition to their degrees and years of acquired knowledge, the approximately 1,150 DU undergraduates who attended the ceremony each were gifted $500 in cash — a donation from commencement speaker Pat Hamill.
When Hamill wrapped his speech with the promise of cash, some students leaped from their seats in celebration while others turned to catch their loved ones’ eyes in the audience mouthing “wow” and a few choice four-letter words.
Seigo Tomozawa, a 22-year-old graduate, said he was going to kick off his newfound winnings by taking his family to dinner at Sushi Den.
“I’m pretty excited,” Tomozawa said during the ceremony. “I wasn’t expecting that. My family said dinner is on me tonight.”
Hamill, who graduated from DU in 1981 with a real estate degree and computer science minor, went on to found Oakwood Homes by 1990 — now one of Denver’s largest homebuilding companies, which sold to Berkshire Hathaway in 2017.
A near-death experience last year weighed heavily on Hamill, who said he decided after his recovery that he wanted to find fulfillment in giving away his wealth. When tapped to deliver his alma mater’s graduation speech, he said he saw a perfect opportunity for some large-scale generosity: putting more than $500,000 in the hands of the fresh-faced grads.
In 1996, Oakwood Homes won an auction that added more than 600 acres of land to their Green Valley Ranch community. The same night the company won the auction, Hamill watched a “20/20” episode discussing the five worst schools in America, and one of them was a middle school in Green Valley Ranch.
“I said, ‘We can’t have a world-class community with one of the worst schools in America,’” he said in an interview with The Denver Post.
Hamill took it upon himself to make improvements at the school, which was then Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School.
He helped redesign the building, met with students and parents to listen to their concerns and created workforce pathways into the construction business through a new foundation called BuildStrong that’s still operating today.
“We’ve done some really neat things to assist in educational outcomes for young people and students and blessing all souls less fortunate,” Hamill said, noting that this experience sparked a passion for philanthropy that has only been magnified after a recent near-death experience.
In November, Hamill was in a serious car crash in Vail. His car slid off the side of a mountain road and rolled several times.
“I was resuscitated multiple times, and I almost didn’t make it,” he said.
Hamill recovered and his second chance at life inspired a new goal: to bounce his last check.
This past year, Hamill chose 50 people in his life — friends, family, coworkers — and gifted them $2,500, urging them to use the money if they needed it or pass it on to someone who could use a hand.
Soon, stories about how the cash was helping people across the country started reaching Hamill, including one of the recipients matching the money and sending it to his grandson in Texas, who gave the money to a family he noticed living out of their car in a Walmart parking lot. Hamill’s grandchildren pooled their cash and gave tens of thousands of dollars to a family at their school whose dad lost his job and was struggling to make ends meet.
“We need to figure out how we can get thousands of people across the U.S. or the world doing this, and can you imagine the difference that would make?” Hamill said. “Let’s see it become a movement.”
When Hamill was asked to be DU’s commencement speaker this year, he was a bit unsure. He doesn’t enjoy public speaking, but he knew he had a message about giving back he wanted to proselytize.
“Ultimately, it’s about being nice,” he said.
Hamill figured he might as well work toward bouncing that last check and give big to DU graduates, donating enough so each undergraduate who shows up to the commencement ceremony walks away with an envelope full of $500 in cash.
“If you need it now, use it,” Hamill said. “When you’re ready, you’re going to do this for someone else.”
DU Chancellor Jeremy Haefner has had to keep the surprise under wraps for the past several weeks.
“I am anxious and optimistic that this is a new level of excitement for the commencement,” Haefner said. “It just has to be. And the message resonates so well with who they are as young leaders and contributors. I think this will reinforce and get them to reflect on what is important to them. What they value.”
The past week has been a scramble for Amy Schwartz, BuildStrong’s executive director, who was charged with rounding up nearly $575,000 in cash.
“I’ve learned a fair amount about banking in the last couple of days,” Schwartz said with a laugh. “Most banks don’t have that kind of cash sitting around. It’s been a delicate dance figuring out the logistics, for sure, but I think we have a good plan to safely get the cash there.”
But graduates who didn’t attend the ceremony are out of luck when it comes to claiming their $500, Schwartz said, adding that it was too difficult to figure out the logistics of getting the no-show students their money.
The cash comes with a QR code to a website where students can write in and share the various ways they’ve chosen to spend their investment. Hamill is most looking forward to hearing these stories and learning the ways in which his donation has touched the lives of others, whether through supporting a family through a difficult time, funding a business idea among graduates or something he can’t even dream up yet.
Jack Harwood, a 23-year-old mechanical engineering graduate, said he was touched by Hamill’s gift.
“I plan on saving the money for someone in need,” Harwood said. “I feel obligated to do something beneficial with this money.”
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