by Valerie Rojas
photography by Reina Santa Cruz
His silver-framed eyeglasses reflect the afternoon sunlight as he slips his hands in his pockets and meanders through the maze of wheelbarrows. The strongly defined wrinkles of his face crease around his deep brown eyes and his self-proclaimed “million dollar” smile as he squints toward the piles of mud, lumber and hammers: remnants of the ongoing construction. The white hair on his head is brushed neatly into place, his green slacks still hold their strong crease, and his beige sweater falls loosely over his pants. He does not even seem to mind the specks of dust collecting on his newly shined brown penny loafers. Michael Abraham, University of La Verne trustee, smiles as he watches his vision for the University slowly—but surely—come to life.
The desire to have Michael and Sara Abraham’s names sketched into a building that would stand for years to come was not the reason behind the generous gift-giving of this married couple. As Michael says, and Sara agrees, it was the students who inspired them to donate $4 million to the Campus Center Project. It was their hope and desire to improve the University, the college experiences of the La Verne student body, and the surrounding community that prompted them to give so graciously to a private university from which they did not graduate.
Michael and Sara have lived the majority of their lives in Southern California, skipping back and forth between their Newport Beach home and their Mexico residence, 60 miles north of Cabo San Lucas. But recently, these Southern California residents have found a new home at La Verne. Although neither attended the University as students, they have embraced the diverse student body and the friendly La Verne community.
In 1999, Richard Landis, a good friend of the Abrahams and a member of the ULV Board of Trustees, asked Michael to come aboard as a fellow trustee. Michael and Sara spent the next few years learning more about La Verne. “These students grabbed my heart,” Sara says with sincere sentiment in her words. “The more time that we spent on campus, the more I was impressed.”Like Sara, Michael was also inspired by the interesting student body. “I like the fact that it’s a small, diversified campus,” Michael says. “I only joined it mainly for Dick,” Michael would later say. The friendship led to their names being linked to one of the most extensive construction projects ever to take place on the La Verne campus.
After serving on the Board, Michael and Sara decided that they wanted to give back to the University and the students who had captured their hearts. “We decided to give a certain amount to the University, and we tried to determine where to put it,” Sara recalls. Because of the large population of first-generation students enrolled at the University, Sara thought the money would best be spent on scholarships for needy students.
But, all in all, Michael was leaning toward a proposed project that caught his attention during a Board of Trustees meeting. The Campus Center Project was presented to the Trustees as a high priority project. Although other projects were on the agenda, Michael immediately knew that he wanted to be involved with the rebuilding of the Campus Center. “Michael stepped forward and said he wanted it to happen sooner than later,” ULV President Stephen Morgan recalls.
Michael, a 1959 University of California, Santa Barbara graduate, remembers how important it was to have a place to interact with other students while he was in school. It was this gift that he wanted to give to La Verne students. “The University never really had a place for students to interact,” Michael says. “That’s what I want to give to the students. That is where students create lifelong friendships. I am on the Board, and I felt that someone had to step up and make that plan happen.”
After discussing his idea with Sara, Michael decided to present his challenge grant to the University. Hence, the Abraham Challenge was born. Michael and Sara promised to donate $4 million to ULV on the condition that the remaining Board members matched the Abraham’s $4 million donation, and that the University would be able to raise an additional $8 million required to fund most of the project. If the University were not able to meet this goal by the Board of Trustees’ Nov. 4, 2005 meeting, Michael and Sara would reduce their donation to only $1 million. “It was kind of like dangling a carrot in front of the University,” Michael laughs, while pretending to dangle a carrot over an invisible cage full of many hungry rabbits. “I challenged them to reach that $12 million goal, with the offer of the other $3 million.”
Not only did the donation from Michael and Sara spearhead the Campus Center construction, it also motivated other Trustees to give large donations, making ULV history. “Their donation is the largest single gift in the history of the University,” President Morgan says excitedly with a boyish grin on his face. “It has inspired people to invest more heavily then they have in our 114 years in existence.”
President Morgan predicts that without the initial contribution from the Abrahams and the challenge that they put before the Board, the Campus Center project would be nonexistent. “It would take a lot longer to achieve a dream like this one,” ULV Treasurer Avo Kechichian says. “His donation expedited the process.”On Oct. 25, University trustees, faculty members and staff met the Abraham challenge and raised a total of $12,555,941: an increase over the initial $12 million challenge amount. Although many students and faculty members are familiar with the Abraham Challenge grant, the people behind this donation are enigmatic.
Michael was raised in Alhambra, Calif. After graduating from Alhambra High School, he attended UCSB where he majored in psychology and philosophy. He originally had plans to finish graduate school, but after enrolling in an ROTC program, served a commission in the Army. Primarily stationed in Korea, his six month tour of duty increased with active duty status. “I thought it would be two years, but that turned into seven,” Michael says gruffly. After his military stint, Michael opted out of the graduate degree, but instead decided to venture into the business world. In 1975, he was living in the Hawaiian islands, but decided to come home to California for the holiday season. It was at a holiday brunch at his brother’s law firm where he met the woman that he would call his wife. Sara was a legal secretary there when Michael showed up at the brunch. “It was something like love at first sight, but it was more like knowing that we were kind of meant for each other,” Sara sweetly recalls. She and Michael dated for seven years before they finally exchanged vows on their dock in Newport Beach, December 1975. “It was very foggy. We could barely see each other, let alone the pastor,” Sara laughs.
Twenty-three years later, Michael and Sara are living happily in their beachside home with their dog. Although childless, the Abrahams say they found their own group of children at the University. “Since we don’t have any children, we wanted to reach out,” Sara says. “It’s better to educate a lot of people instead of just a few.” Michael currently works as the Chief Executive Officer of MKA Capitol Group Inc., a large private source of capitol producing funding for developers in housing contracts. Although “retired” in 1975, Michael started this business in 1979, and his current division was started in 1988. “I’ve always been able to do what I want to do. I’ve accomplished it all in my lifetime, through business as a vehicle,” Michael says. “I have wanted to be financially independent and I am.” Sara has since retired from real estate, her second career.
When he’s not in the office, he enjoys spending his time with Sara, golfing, fishing, boating and traveling. “We spend about three months a year traveling,” he says. A favorite travel spot is their Cabo San Lucas home. “It is one place where we can absolutely relax and get away from the business world,” Sara says.
The couple plans on remaining integral members of the La Verne community. “We will continue to give to the University through scholarships for further education,” Sara says. “You don’t give gifts wondering if they will impact your lifestyle. But this one has impacted ours, very positively,” Michael says as he stares out of a window overlooking the future site of the new campus center. To Michael and Sara, the building will be more than just a pile of bricks. The Campus Center will serve as the heartbeat of the La Verne campus, a place where students can socialize, re-energize and take pride in their school, all thanks to a husband and wife team who saw something special in the students of the University of La Verne.