Paul and Ruth Jonas estate keeps giving to OU students and faculty

Winter 2020

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OU Jonas Chair in Mental Health Dr. Britta Ostermeyer consults with psychiatrist Jawaum Lewis about patients they serve at the Oklahoma County Jail. The program is one of a few of its kind in the nation. Photo by Lynette Lobban

OU Jonas Chair in Mental Health Dr. Britta Ostermeyer consults with psychiatrist Jawaum Lewis about patients they serve at the Oklahoma County Jail. The program is one of a few of its kind in the nation. Photo by Lynette Lobban

Paul Jonas walked into the gleaming lobby of an Oklahoma City bank wearing his daily farming uniform of striped bib overalls and dilapidated work boots. Unseen in his pocket was a check for $800,000.

“The bankers wouldn’t pay any attention to him,” said Jonas’ longtime attorney, Richard Fogg of El Reno, Okla. “Paul let them know that he had money to deposit, but he wouldn’t put it in their institution if his life depended on it.”

Paul and his wife, Ruth, were unlikely millionaires who turned a family tragedy into opportunity for University of Oklahoma students with a $2.3 million estate gift to the OU Foundation. And their gift only keeps growing.

Paul Jonas was the second generation of a German immigrant farming family. He and his brother, Otto, purchased thousands of acres in Canadian and Oklahoma counties and earned a fortune by selling part of their Oklahoma City land to expand Will Rogers World Airport. The Jonases also owned dozens of oil and gas leases.

Yet astonishingly, Paul and Ruth lived in a house with dirt floors. “Money was just a commodity, like wheat. They got it, and they stored it,” Fogg said.

The Jonases’ son studied at OU and died as a young man. Because the couple had no living children, “their choice was to do something good and create an opportunity for kids,” Fogg explained.

Ruth died in 1982, and Paul followed in 1989. Fogg collaborated with the OU Foundation to create a scholarship in their names that benefitted more than 60 students this year, as well as three endowed chairs supporting research and teaching in cancer, diabetes and mental health.

Today, the combined Jonas funds are valued at $7.8 million. They have grown significantly due to the couple’s gift of mineral interests, which contributed $1.6 million in 2019 alone.
Funds provided through the three Jonas endowed chairs allow distinguished faculty members to conduct research and impact the community. For instance, Dr. Greg Krempl, the Paul and Ruth Jonas Chair at OU’s Stephenson Cancer Center, has spent the past five summers conducting research alongside OU medical students and residents, including a study examining the relationship between a person’s muscle mass and their body’s response to cancer treatment.

Dr. Jed Friedman, recently named the Paul and Ruth Jonas Chair in Diabetes, is helping to recruit promising faculty members specializing in cutting-edge diabetes research. The Harold Hamm Diabetes Center is one of 13 National Institutes of Health centers developing new treatments for teens and young adults with type 2 diabetes, which is becoming prevalent among Native American youth, Friedman said.

And the Jonas Chair in Mental Health, Dr. Britta Ostermeyer, is leading a team of 13 OU Medicine professionals contracted to provide mental health services at the Oklahoma County Jail.

Ostermeyer said few programs of this kind exist. Even the U.S. Department of Justice took notice, sending a team to observe OU’s work. “They were very pleased and hopeful that, by engaging OU, Oklahoma was able to provide safer and more extended services that rise to the highest standard of psychiatric care,” she added, explaining that many prisoners suffer from mental illness and “disappear from care” during the time they are incarcerated.

The program also is invaluable for OU Medicine students. “Being in a state that has – relatively speaking – one of the largest populations of incarcerated people in the world, it’s extremely important for future physicians to have been in correctional, mental and medical care sites,” she said. “The Jonas Chair has made a major contribution to our success, and we are very grateful.”