Philanthropist redeems chequebook journalism

I often wondered quite what people meant when they said my television reports were "priceless". Now I have a rejoinder: I know exactly what they are worth: US $500,000 (pound;326,000) to be precise.

That is how much a viewer donated to Oxford University's new bursary scheme after watching my story about its launch on BBC News. In fact, it could turn out to be a lot more. The 80-year-old donor has also included the university in his will, and they could one day get a further $2 million.

I was intrigued to meet this educational philanthropist when I returned to Oxford to do a follow-up report for the Ten O'Clock News which ran the original story. His name is Kevin Malone and he turned out to be one of the most modest and unassuming people.

The son of an Irish stone-mason, he left his Nottingham school aged 14. He had passed the 11-plus but the local grammar school was non-denominational and he was a Catholic. A combination of "the priest, the nuns and my mother" meant he didn't go there. His family could not afford the fees for the nearest Catholic grammar school.

He became a messenger boy for the Co-op. Later, after national service in the RAF, he became a commercial photographer but, feeling he was going nowhere, he emigrated to the United States in 1956.

It was in New York City that he started making his fortune. He became a salesman specialising in a photographic process used in advertising. It was, he says, "a dog eat dog business" and he was "let go" more than once.

He went freelance and, eventually, through long hours and a dedication to learning the latest techniques, he reached the top as a super-salesman. That - followed by shrewd investment in bonds, equities and property - was how he amassed his fortune. As he puts it: "I made out all right."

So how did Kevin Malone, expatriate multi-millionaire, become the benefactor to Oxford undergraduates from poor homes? It is all down to his habit of watching BBC World News every evening in his New Jersey home.

After his wife died, he had been thinking of leaving some money to an educational cause which would benefit people like himself from poorer backgrounds who might be denied a university education on cost grounds.

But he did not know where to start. He was even considering taking out an advertisement in the newspapers. Then, one evening last June, the answer jumped out at him from his television set.

The report on BBC World was about the launch of a scheme to provide a limited return of student grants to those from less affluent homes.

The story featured pupils from an inner-city school in the Midlands who were on a trial visit to Oxford. This struck a chord with former Nottingham schoolboy, Kevin Malone. The bursary scheme was exactly the sort of thing he had wanted to support.

As he tells it, he immediately wrote to Oxford offering to help fund the just-launched bursary scheme. The university almost bit his arm off. His $500,000 is enough to fund around 170 three-year grants, worth about pound;2,000 per student.

When I went to film Mr Malone, he was on his first proper visit to Oxford. He was enjoying it. His only complaint: the number of large college dinners he had to sit through.

I could not have had a niceror more co-operative interviewee. This 80-year-old was quite happy to walk around St John's College quadrangle as many times as my cameraman requested.

There was a bit of his New Yorker's fiery spirit too. When a passing lady don, showing the usual academic's disregard for the processes of television, knocked the camera's tripod during the interview, Mr Malone turned and called after her: "Hey lady, why don't you come back and kick the other leg too!"

Being the matchmaker between this unusual philanthropist and Oxford's bursary scheme was an unintended, and unexpected, pleasure. In future, I anticipate no problem at all getting filming access at schools and colleges.

I'll just drop a hint about who might be out there watching with chequebook at the ready.

Mike Baker is the BBC's education correspondent

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