Robert A. Day, a businessman and philanthropist who as chairman and CEO of the W. M. Keck Foundation played a decisive role in its longstanding partnership with Caltech, passed away on September 14. He was 79.
The W. M. Keck Foundation—established by Day's grandfather, oil entrepreneur William Myron Keck—has been a generous supporter of Caltech since 1960, when the foundation made a gift to establish the W. M. Keck Engineering Laboratories. During Day's chairmanship, which began in 1995 and lasted until his death, he helped deepen the relationship between the two organizations, so much so that, in 2014, the Caltech Board of Trustees awarded him the Institute's highest honor.
"Robert was a visionary philanthropist and a true champion for private investments in scientific investigation," says Ed Stolper, the Judge Shirley Hufstedler Professor of Geology, former provost and interim president of Caltech, and current member of the Keck Foundation's board of directors. "He helped nurture audacious lines of research that have expanded—and will continue to expand—fundamental knowledge in physics, astrophysics, earth science, space science, and health and biosciences."
Day's tenure as chairman of the foundation yielded numerous investments in Caltech, including the creation in 1997 of a discovery fund that enabled more than two dozen research groups to pursue highly innovative investigations in basic biomedical research. He also oversaw the foundation's 2008 gift to establish the Keck Institute for Space Studies, which brings together scientists and engineers from Caltech's campus and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which Caltech manages for NASA, to develop new space-mission concepts and technologies. Earlier this year, the Keck Foundation made a gift to endow the Edward C. Stone Professorship, which will help recruit and retain radically inventive scientists in astronomy, planetary science, and related fields, and ensure that the scholars who hold this position have resources to pursue their most creative and ambitious ideas. In sum, these initiatives represent $33 million in support for pioneering scientists and transformative research programs.
Day was born in Los Angeles and studied economics at what is now known as Claremont McKenna College. When he was 27 years old, he founded Trust Company of the West, raising $750,000 to start a company that ultimately managed more than $100 billion in financial assets and was sold for $2 billion. He remained involved with Claremont McKenna throughout his life, serving for more than 50 years on the college's board and supporting an array of programs and centers there. Under his leadership, the Keck Foundation also made naming gifts to the Keck School of Medicine of USC, which operates an MD-PhD program with Caltech, as well as to Keck Medicine of USC.
His survivors include his wife, Marlyn Day, and his children, Joseph Day (co-chief executive officer of the Keck Foundation), Dorothy Day, and Jonathan Day.