Altruistic Instincts

Alumnus Tom Mulvaney '77 and his wife Karen


When Tom and Karen Mulvaney reflect on the intrinsic value of community service, fond memories of their respective childhoods quickly emerge.

While church served as a moral foundation for his large Irish Catholic family, Tom also remembers the dinner table of his parents’ Clairemont, Calif., home providing more than just a hot meal. Jim and Ruth Mulvaney would use it as a daily teaching opportunity. The lesson? Instilling the importance of thinking of others.

“My father would go around the table and listen to everyone talk about how their day went. Then he’d ask if anything you did benefitted someone else. It could be anything: If you played a sport, you’d be asked ‘what did you do that contributed to the benefit of the team?’”

Karen, who grew up in Connecticut, says, “I was taught by my parents’ example that every person should strive to give back, to make the place or community where one lives better for having lived there. Community service is fundamental for community health. It can take place within a family as each individual member gives freely to the whole. By fostering the idea of giving inside each of our own families, the larger acts of giving become a natural extension of how we live our lives.”

These teaching moments still serve the Mulvaneys’ vision of working for the good of the whole. Tom ’77 — one of four family relatives with a USD law degree and father of son Mason ‘09 — and Karen are active in their Northern California hometown of Lafayette. They participate in Youth Homes, an organization that assists at-risk foster children and Karen — who volunteered in her children’s schools — works closely with the Lafayette Library and Learning Center, which opened in 2009. “It’s the heart of this town,” says Karen, who is on the center’s foundation board.

Tom, a welder while he attended law school at night, started his post-USD law education as an attorney but soon focused on other business interests. He left the corporate world 10 years ago, seeking ways to better serve his community. Education is at the forefront. He’s president of the Acalanes Union High School District Governing Board. The district, featuring four nationally recognized high schools, has a slogan — “we educate every student to excel and contribute in a global society” — that fits the Mulvaneys’ own desire to do their best.

“When you get up and read the newspaper or go on the Internet, what do you see?” Tom asks. “You see a world with a lot of concerns. What Karen and I try to focus on, because of the way we were brought up, is making our part of the world a better place and trying to alleviate some of those concerns. You’ve got to have some impact because we have to make this place better. We owe that to our children and grandchildren.”

Tom doesn’t have to look far for the blueprint. His role model, his late father Jim, was a noted civic leader in San Diego. A USD law professor from 1957 to 1963, teaching corporations, uniform commercial code and juris prudence, Jim made community service his forte. He worked for a variety of good causes, including the United Way, the Mercy Hospital Foundation, St. Vincent De Paul and many others. He was also involved at USD, serving on the College of Arts and Sciences’ Auxiliary Board and the School of Law’s Board of Visitors. He established the Maudsley Fellows Society to honor the school’s most generous donors.

“He always said it didn’t matter who you are as a human being, in terms of how much money you make, but what’s really important is that you’re helping other people. He always emphasized the need to stay active, work hard, be involved and be humble.”

So when Tom and Karen sought to honor Jim’s legacy of service and instill his ideals to the next generation, they turned to the University of San Diego and the Center for Community Service-Learning (CSL), which is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2011-2012.

The Mulvaneys met with CSL Director Chris Nayve ’98, ’06 (JD), ‘07 (MBA) and learned how the center’s programs assist local schools, organizations and build community in New Orleans, Tijuana and Duncans, Jamaica. Tom was particularly impressed with CSL’s microfinance loan program and its “getting down to basics” approach that partners students with others in order to provide loans to support low-income families that are launching small businesses.

The meeting resonated with the Mulvaneys. They learned that more than 150 USD courses include a community-service component and more than 6,600 USD students annually (undergraduate and graduate) participate in service-learning projects, totaling nearly 400,000 hours of community service.

To ensure CSL’s relationships continue to make a difference, both in the lives of USD students and the communities they work with, Tom and Karen decided to issue the $400,000 Mulvaney Challenge to the entire USD community. If the challenge, which ends June 30, 2012, is met, the Mulvaneys will match every dollar raised. Double the dollars, double the difference. “We’ve been blessed economically and it’s our obligation, we feel, to give back some of that good fortune to help others,” Tom says. “We’re happy
to do this because we think it’s going to help the institution, really benefit a lot of students, and, as a result, help our society.” — Ryan T. Blystone

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