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‘I’m Giving It All’ Carl Knowlan’s deeply personal gift to the Cockrell School of Engineering

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Four years ago, Carl Knowlan was in a lunch line when his phone rang. On the other end, a student caller asked if he might donate to UT Austin's annual fund. “I’ll give you a donation,” he said, “but what I’m really interested in is how I fund a scholarship at The University of Texas at Austin.” Startled, the student took his number and promised to get back to him.

Knowlan, who grew up in the Houston area, had graduated with a government degree from UT Austin in 1985. He built a career as an IT consultant to laboratories and formed a staffing company. But the bulk of his adult life was shaped by caring for his loving parents, both of whom suffered lengthy declines. His father, an industrial engineer, was stricken with Parkinson’s, dementia, and heart disease. His mother battled cancer, strokes, and emphysema. All told, Knowlan willingly dedicated 25 years to being a skilled caregiver for his parents.

Having invested so much in loved ones who now were gone, he went through a crisis of purpose. What would he do with the rest of his life? He looked inward, prayed, and eight months later his phone rang.

When the student caller reconnected Knowlan to UT Austin, wheels were set in motion that would lead him to a new focus and kindle an intense partnership neither he nor the university could have predicted. Development officer Catherine Ott Griffith reached out and brainstormed with him about how he could make a difference. Driven by a desire to help cure diseases like the ones he had seen up close, Knowlan honed in on biomedical engineering and established the Carl Hagen Knowlan Endowed Excellence Fund in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. He has bequeathed $400,000 to the department but also wants to give during his lifetime.

“I’m not a multimillionaire,” he says. “I’m a normal, middle-class person, but I’m passionate about my direction in life from here on, and it’s to give back.” Knowlan recites a personal mission statement: “... to bring awareness to education and to advance science to alleviate human suffering, increase human performance, and increase human life span.”

“I’m giving it all,” he says with a smile. “All of my estate goes to The University of Texas — everything!”

The current steward of Knowlan’s generosity is Andy Dunn, professor of biomedical engineering and the director of the Center for Emerging Imaging Technologies. Dunn characterizes Knowlan’s gift as “very significant” for the Cockrell School’s youngest department, 14 years old and with commensurately young alumni generally not able yet to make sizeable gifts.

Knowlan’s bequest could allow dozens of students to experience lab research, and it could support several graduate students throughout their entire academic careers. Dunn’s research focuses on combining medical imaging with predictive models. Getting clearer pictures of a tumor throughout a course of treatment, then combining those with predictive models, could help customize therapy.

The emergence of the Dell Medical School at UT Austin was simply one more confirmation to Knowlan that he was on the right path.

“I didn’t even know a medical school was planned when I did this,” he says, “but it’s perfect. From research to service delivery, it’s the entire cycle. It’s comprehensive, and it’s going to be a model.”

Knowlan doesn’t consider himself wealthy, but says someone like him can still have a significant impact provided he targets his gift. He encourages potential donors to search their own lives for what interests them.

“Do some self study. Determine what you’re passionate about. Focus in that area,” he says. “Ask to talk to a few folks. Most people have time to talk to you even if they’re world-famous professors. You’ll be amazed by what happens and how you’ll start to see creative ways to contribute. I can’t help myself now. I am so driven,” he says.

“It’s amazing, and I love it.”