Robert Addison Day, who headed Keck Foundation, dies at 79

While addressing recipients of the Claremont McKenna College scholarship that bears his name, Robert Addison Day made the seemingly gratuitous offer to meet them individually for lunch at the exclusive California Club in Los Angeles.

Two dared to ask and found out the offer was real.

“Another scholar and I reached out and were soon having lunch with Mr. Day,” Juliet Archer, a member of the class of 2011, wrote in a post on the college website.

The two students found Day genuinely interested in their experiences and aspirations.

“He patiently answered our questions and regaled us with tales of his career and what he’s learned along the way,” Archer wrote. “When he got to a funny point in the story, he always leaned in with a knowing smile.”

That humor and personal touch were common threads of the tributes that poured out from former students and colleagues of the financier, philanthropist and longtime Claremont McKenna trustee who died Sept. 14 at age 79.

“ In his soft-spoken voice, he always tried to answer each student, sometimes with a twinkle in his eye or smirk on his face when he knew his response was going to draw a laugh,” wrote Michelle Chamberlain, a vice president at the college who heads the Robert Day Scholars Program.

Day was the third generation of his family to lead the W.M. Keck Foundation, started by his grandfather, oil entrepreneur William Myron Keck.

In that role, he had a major impact on Southern California through donations to Claremont McKenna and USC and to health research nationally.

Gifts of more than $272 million to USC are “visible every day in the university’s hospitals, clinics, research labs and classrooms,” the university wrote in a memorial.

Born in 1943 in Los Angeles, Day enrolled at Claremont Men’s College in 1960.

Rick Learned, a 1966 graduate, recalled that Day had the only electric calculator in their dorm and “was generous about letting us check our accounting homework on it.”

In 1966, Day submitted his senior thesis, “A Proposal for an Investment Advisory Company.”

After working in institutional sales for White Weld & Co. in New York, he returned to California to start that company. Beginning with $2 million in assets under management in 1971, Trust Co. of the West grew over 40 years to $248 billion.

At age 29, Day became Claremont McKenna’s youngest elected trustee and two decades later its youngest chairman.

His $200-million pledge in 2007 to create the Robert Day Scholars Program was the largest recorded gift to a liberal arts college, according to the college biography.

He took over leadership of the Keck Foundation in 1996 after serving on its board for 28 years.

In a statement posted on the foundation website, his son Joseph Day and cousin Steve Day, co-chief executives, said the foundation awarded grants totaling $2 billion under his direction and currently has $1.5 billion in assets.

“His tenure saw a remarkable eight scientists the foundation funded early in their work granted nine Nobel Prizes, five named MacArthur Fellows, two receive Benjamin Franklin Awards, and two receive Lasker Awards,” they wrote.

Day was a crack skeet shooter, according to former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who called him Addison in recognition of their shared middle names.

“First, he was a deadeye shot. And second he knew how to teach that skill, something he employed to make me a better hunter,” Baker wrote on the Claremont McKenna remembrance page, adding that he met Day on the skeet range at Northern California’s Bohemian Grove.

In addition to his son Joseph, Day’s survivors include his wife, Marlyn Day; his daughter, DiDi; his son Jon, and several grandchildren.

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