Rita Clements: Legacy gifts inspire hope to end brain disease

By Sharon Reynolds

Gov. Bill and Rita Clements

The Rita Clements Foundation has made a $5 million gift to UT Southwestern’s Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute to create the Rita Clements Center for Clinical Research in Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases. Rita Clements’ children – Barbara B. Moroney, Bonnie B. Smith, and James E. Bass – and their families also made a combined donation of $500,000 to create the Rita Clements Chair in Brain Research to support depression/bipolar and Alzheimer’s translational research.

In 2018, Mrs. Clements passed away from complications of Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 86. She was married for 36 years to former Texas Gov. William P. Clements Jr., who died in 2011. She is remembered for her extensive contributions to the city of Dallas and to the state of Texas as a First Lady of Texas, a member of The University of Texas Board of Regents, a political and community activist, and a philanthropist.

“As a civic and philanthropic leader, Rita Clements championed progress and prosperity for the citizens of Texas,” said Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky, President of UT Southwestern.”

“Thanks to these generous gifts from her children, Barbara, Bonnie, James, and the Rita Clements Foundation, her work lives on at UT Southwestern, where brain-related research is one of our highest priorities. This investment will help make it possible for O’Donnell Brain Institute scientists to make discoveries that will transform our understanding of the underlying causes of Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders and lead to effective treatment and eventually cure and prevention.”

Mrs. Smith, Mrs. Moroney, and Mr. Bass directed their mother’s gift to the O’Donnell Brain Institute, which was being formed at the time her health was declining. Mrs. Clements’ longtime professional and personal relationship with her dear friends, Peter and Edith O’Donnell, makes these gifts especially meaningful.

“Even though our mother wasn’t in the mindset that she could make those kinds of decisions at the time, we knew that the O’Donnell Brain Institute would be first and foremost amongst the institutions she would want to support,” Mrs. Smith said.

Rita Crocker was born Oct. 30, 1931, in Newton, Kansas, to rancher Mason Crocker and his wife, Florabel. As a young girl, she began her day at 5 a.m., herding sheep and cattle by horseback and attending public school about 20 miles from home. In 1941, Mr. Crocker relocated his family to Texas. Rita attended high school as a boarder at The Hockaday School in Dallas, where she excelled and graduated at the top of her class. She furthered her education at Wellesley College, and completed her degree at The University of Texas at Austin, graduating in 1953 with honors, majoring in Spanish and minors in history and government.

Coming from a long line of Republicans in Kansas, she assumed her family’s interest in politics. While at UT Austin, she began her political career as a volunteer for Dwight D. Eisenhower’s successful 1952 presidential campaign.

“Our mother committed and applied herself to political organizing, getting deep into the trenches in Texas from the start,” Mr. Bass said. “She loved this state because it was where she discovered her purpose and developed her passions.”

During the ’50s and ’60s, she raised her children and honed her grassroots political organizing skills with her youngsters in tow. After moving to Dallas in 1953, she eventually crossed paths with the O’Donnells.

Edith and Peter O'Donnell with Rita and Bill Clements

“When they met, they obviously recognized their similar interests, similar intellect, and similar personalities,” Mrs. Smith said. “In 1957, Peter and Edith invited our mother to join them as Directors of the O’Donnell Foundation when it was established. The first meeting was convened in our family duplex, when Barbara and I were 3 months old.”

One of Mrs. Clements’ proudest contributions was working alongside the O’Donnells for more than 60 years to build the O’Donnell Foundation into one of the largest private independent philanthropic foundations in Dallas.

In 1975, she married Bill Clements, who worked closely with Peter O’Donnell through politics and served two terms as Texas Governor. The couples became the best of friends.

Mr. Bass said, “At that time, one of the biggest challenges was how to propel Texas to transition from what they grew up with – the oil, cattle, and agricultural state that it was – to a place where excellence would reign in high-tech and research-based institutions, both from the public and private sides. That is the essence of where the O’Donnell Foundation, with its tremendous ability to have impact for more than 60 years, was focused. Bill Clements was able to make a difference on the governance side when he was Governor of Texas. There was an incredible fit and alignment of interest among these four people, who were each seeking change for improvement in the state they loved tremendously.”

William T. Solomon, President and CEO of the O’Donnell Foundation and a long-time ambassador and supporter of UT Southwestern, first met Mrs. Clements while he was a senior in high school working on the Nixon campaign. Later he became associated with her in various civic activities, eventually joining her on the O’Donnell Foundation Board.

“Rita, Peter, and Edith shared not only the official capacity they had in the O’Donnell Foundation, but they shared the common interests in education, medicine, and medical research. Those interests – together with the common official capacity of the Foundation and a strong personal compatibility – made the three of them a powerhouse combination as it related to work in the community, work in the political world, and work in the O’Donnell Foundation,” Mr. Solomon said.

Inspiration shines in the hearts of Mrs. Clements’ children and grandchildren.

“Our mother allowed each of us to develop into the people we are today without telling us how to live our lives,” Mrs. Moroney said. “She rose to the top of nearly every organization she became involved with and set an incredible example of public work. Today her 13 adult grandchildren have a tremendous amount of respect and love for their grandmother. They see the contributions and significant difference she made. They are all proud of her legacy and hopefully will want to emulate her example.”

Dr. Podolsky holds the Philip O’Bryan Montgomery, Jr., M.D. Distinguished Presidential Chair in Academic Administration, and the Doris and Bryan Wildenthal Distinguished Chair in Medical Science.