A Visionary’s Gift
Posted on October 29, 2018
If the name Andrew Viterbi is one that has been spoken with an uptick in frequency lately, there’s a good reason why: the tech innovator and 2007 National Medal of Science Laureate recently gave a gift of $50 million to UC San Diego and its Department of Ophthalmology. The gift will fund The Viterbi Family Department of Ophthalmology, The Viterbi Family Vision Research Center, and six new endowed chairs to lead research and education as well as patient care.
Viterbi is no stranger to philanthropy. Local beneficiaries include Scripps Research, Scripps Health, Rady Children’s Hospital, and Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, and he’s also been a generous supporter of education including his alma maters, MIT and USC, as well as UCLA, where he joined the faculty in 1963 as an assistant professor before becoming a full professor in 1969. However, this is his first gift to the university where Viterbi taught for 19 years, from 1975 to 1994, during part of which time he was concurrently growing a fledgling little tech company called Qualcomm. Beyond its significance due to the size of the contribution, this gift has an emotional significance that the others may not so easily claim.
Yes, Viterbi wears glasses, and yes, he is a patient at UC San Diego’s Shiley Eye Institute, but there’s more to it than that: Viterbi’s father, Achille Viterbi, was an ophthalmologist. And to hear Viterbi talk about his father, or see his face light up as he remembers him, the full meaning of this donation truly comes to light. “I do it, as much as anything, in memory of my father. He was both my father and my grandfather that I never knew, and my best teacher,” says Viterbi warmly of the man who, at age 57, with Viterbi’s mother and four-year-old Andrew, escaped fascist Italy in 1939 and came to the U.S. to start anew, far from the anti-Semitism that robbed him of his practice and position at the University of Parma where he was a lecturer.
Though his father is the “why,” it’s his admiration for the department and those who lead it and the university that make it worthy of Viterbi’s gift. Of Robert Weinreb, MD, Chairman and Distinguished Professor of Ophthalmology at UC San Diego, Viterbi says, “Bob Weinreb is a great man. He’s going to cure blindness. I believe it.” His relationship with the university’s chancellor, Pradeep Khosla, was integral to the contribution as well. The two “hit it off very well from the very beginning,” says Viterbi. It was Khosla who suggested the donation to the ophthalmology department. “He had read my memoir, so he knew all about the ophthalmology angle, which I thought was a very clever angle,” says Viterbi with a twinkle in his eye.
The donation is a bit more involved than simply cash, though $10 million of the $50 million is just that. The remaining $40 million comes from the donation of Viterbi’s 26,000-square-foot Rancho Santa Fe estate, where we sat down with the tech visionary. The high-tech home, designed by architect Guy Dreier, is a contemporary masterpiece, and it’s obvious that it’s a source of great pride for Viterbi. Why give it away? “This is a big house. It was the labor of love primarily of my late wife, although I participated quite a bit, checkbook included,” he says with a playful smile. When his beloved wife, Erna, passed away in 2015, he says, “this became much too large.” So, with this donation, he will leave the Ranch behind and make his new home in a penthouse on Prospect in the heart of La Jolla.
As for the “when,” Viterbi says, “I have an association with the University of California system for 55 years going back to 1963. I will tell you that I’ve done my share of philanthropy — I’m not as super wealthy as some, but I’ve made similar gifts to three other universities — so I said, ‘now it’s time for UCSD.’”
Asked what his parents might say if they could know of Viterbi’s latest act of philanthropy, he says humbly, “This is a little beyond anything they could have imagined, nor what I could have imagined, for that matter. If I were to summarize it, I would say that I was exceedingly fortunate.” Deanna Murphy
Photo by Vincent Knakal