Cliff Todd dies; donor’s name was placed on College Heights Foundation building last month

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Cliff Todd was a well-known donor and WKU alumnus. “He would like to know that he’s helping impact so many students stories and future things that they’re going to be able to accomplish,” Jessica Carver, Vice President of the College Heights Foundation said. Photo provided by the College Heights Foundation.

Debra Murray, Digital News Editor

Cliff Todd never met a stranger. He would talk to anyone for hours and still manage to remember all the small details about their life.

The WKU alumnus and well known philanthropist passed away Tuesday at the age 93. 

“[He] genuinely wanted to know about you and your family,” said Jessica Carver, vice president of the College Heights Foundation. “I had just met and really got to know [him] a lot better when I was coming off of maternity leave, the first thing he would ask me was how my daughter Ruby was.”

When he came to WKU, Todd worked several part-time jobs, including at the cafeteria where he started working on his first day.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in agriculture in 1950, he went on to earn a master’s degree in public health focusing on epidemiology in 1958 from Columbia University.

In 1983, Todd formed U.S. Corrections Corp., the first private prison company in the United States, to help government agencies alleviate problems with overcrowded prisons. He retired in 1995. Todd pleaded guilty to mail fraud in 1994, served a 15-month federal prison sentence and paid a $40,000 fine for his role in an extortion scheme in which Todd paid a Jefferson County corrections official $198,000 to keep a contract to house county inmates, according to news accounts at the time.

“Cliff made WKU aware in 1999 of this incident in his past when he made his first commitment to the institution.  He has embraced it, conducted a bicycle ride fundraiser as part of it,  atoned for it, and even acknowledged it in his obituary,” said Donald Smith, president of the College Heights Foundation. “This one setback does not define his character or the legacy of his life.  He should always be remembered for his 93 years of his generous philanthropy, his unwavering service to others, and the countless number of lives he has impacted with his benevolent spirit.”

After his careers in epidemiology and as a private prison executive, Todd had been involved with the university since the late 1990s, when he made his first seven-figure donation, according to a WKU press release. For many, Todd’s philanthropy at WKU has allowed them to get an education. 

“For him, it wasn’t about himself,” said Smith. “We had to convince him to even go public when he was making a contribution. It was about the number of people that he could impact.”

Todd also made a gift to establish the J. Clifford Todd Professorship in Longevity and Healthful Living. The gift is used for the WellU program at the Preston Center and provides scholarships to students involved in that program.

In June, the College Heights Foundation dedicated its new headquarters, a historic mansion on Chestnut Street built in 1899, to Todd. The dedication was “one of the highlights of his life,” Smith said. The building was named after Todd in appreciation for his $1 million gift to the foundation.

“He had a knack for real estate,” Carver said. “He liked to take on projects where he would renovate properties, so that’s kind of why this opportunity of helping the College Heights Foundation was so perfect for him. It was just really befitting of him and his, his spirit and his passions.”

On the day of the building’s dedication to Todd, he gave Smith a cowbell that Todd wanted him to ring every time something good happened at the College Heights Foundation. Smith said the foundation has a reason to ring it every day.

“We’re extremely grateful for the generosity that he had for his alma mater,” Smith said, “and on a personal level of friendship through the years, I hope he rests in peace.”

Digital News Editor Debra Murray can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @debramurrayy