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Wealth of Spirit: The Enduring Gifts of Bob Brunet

Photo of Robert Brunet

By Jose Perez Beduya

Through a lifetime of gifts and warm words of encouragement for the individuals and programs he supported, Robert “Bob” Brunet ’41 was an uplifting champion for Cornell. On March 16, 2012, the 93-year-old bachelor with no immediate family members passed away quietly, but his devotion for Cornell resounded in one final hurrah: a bequest benefiting athletics, the College of Engineering, and other areas of the university he most cared about.

When Brunet’s final contribution to athletics came to light, it was a great surprise to Andy Noel, the Meakem*Smith Director of Athletics and Physical Education. Noel used the gift to help fund the first phase of the much-needed and still-ongoing softball field renovation.

According to Noel, impeccable timing was Brunet’s signature: “When his gifts came in, they always raised my spirits, and the spirits of the coaching staff and their students … His generosity was not only of a very significant magnitude, but the timing of his contributions was also always critical to the teams he felt the closest connection with.” Noel explains how, year after year, Brunet had helped to meet the fundraising goals of several teams, including women’s teams for softball, track and field, and ice hockey.

“Every time he called or wrote after making a gift, he would always say, ‘I wish it could be more,’ even though his gifts were always much greater than what we could have expected,” says Lou Duesing, the retired head coach for women’s track and field and current assistant coach of women’s cross country. Duesing adds that Brunet lived frugally but gave generously, and that he saw Cornell as the family he never had, devoting the same fatherly attention to each program, coach, and team he supported.

Apart from Brunet’s tremendous financial support, his ever-enthusiastic correspondence lives on in memory. A former Reunion class campaign chair and Cornell Annual Fund representative, he used his favorite Class of 1941 letterhead for messages to the athletics director, the coaches, and their teams, commending their “positive, winning spirit.” He was always quick to praise, often exclaiming, “Keep up your good work!” and, “Full speed ahead!” In 2007, even while recovering from a series of strokes, he maintained his optimism, as well as his sense of humor. “In spite of all that,” he wrote, “I can still write a check!”

Brunet was a staunch advocate for female athletes, whom he considered underdogs in the sports world. In one letter to Doug Derraugh, head coach of the women’s ice hockey team, he described the players as “the best ambassadors for Cornell.”

A World War II veteran who grew up during the Great Depression, Brunet worked in the energy industry for most of his life and became a philanthropist by living modestly, building his savings over the decades, and investing wisely.

In his later years, he used planned gifts to sustain his support of Cornell. Apart from providing for the university in his will, he established a charitable gift annuity (CGA) in 2004 through a combination of cash and appreciated securities—a tax-efficient and income-producing giving vehicle. A former John McMullen Scholar at the College of Engineering, he had instructed that, upon his passing, remaining assets of his CGA be directed to the Robert D. “Bob” Brunet McMullen Scholarship, which he had established in 1994 as a tribute to his benefactor.

In 2005, for his exceptional devotion and generosity to Cornell, Brunet was recognized as a Foremost Benefactor, the highest honor bestowed by the university upon its supporters. Previously declining a formal recognition ceremony in Ithaca, New York, he was given the award as a surprise at a dinner celebration in Cambridge, Massachusetts—where he lived in a humble apartment—after the Ivy League Heptagonal Indoor Track & Field Championships that was held at Harvard that year.

Duesing—who presented Brunet with a letterman sweater and a symbolic relay baton, along with the statuette of Ezra Cornell given to Foremost Benefactors—remembers Brunet’s embarrassment and how he quickly deflected attention from himself by praising the coaching staff and student-athletes at the dinner.

According to Duesing, Brunet was always shy of the limelight, preferring to support and cheer on his beloved teams from the sidelines. It was the same modesty and selflessness found in his letters. He would close many of them with, “Best regards, Bob,” often adding, “P.S. No reply expected.”