Here I come to the United States, and I speak very little English, but I’m a success today. Think about that and follow that example.”
–Susie Downey

2021 President’s Medallion Award Recipient

$1-million gift born of husband’s dying wish and immigrant wife’s appreciation for Merced College

Local rancher Susie Downey, on behalf of herself and her late husband Russell Downey, donated $1 million to Merced College to support student success and access initiatives. In honor of their generosity, the Merced College Learning Resources Center will be named after the Downeys, and the couple will receive the 2021 President’s Medallion Award at this year’s State of the College event.

The gift was set in motion prior to Col. Downey’s death in 2017. That’s when the former Castle Air Force Base commander told his wife that their life’s work running several local ranches would allow them to eventually make a large donation to an organization.

Upon making the gift official in 2020, Susie Downey said: “My husband told me, ‘Susie, I know you worked hard for [this success], but without [children], it’s not enough.’ He said, ‘When you’re part of a community like this, you want it to grow. Give it to someone here.’ So I honor his wish.”

Susie Downey, born near clear blue beaches of Nha Trang, Vietnam, met the colonel while working at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon during the Vietnam War. After falling in love, surviving the war and serving a two-year posting in Panama, the Downeys landed at Castle AFB. Susie then attended Merced College to improve her English.

Jill Cunningham, Executive Director of the Merced College Foundation, said it has been an honor getting to know Downey while working with her on this project.

“This is another wonderful example of community members who believe in the transformational power of a community college and, more specifically, in all that Merced College has done for this community for over 58 years,” Cunningham said.

Downey found inspiration for the gift while attending the last in-person State of the College event in 2019.

“I knew everyone there,” said a chuckling Downey, an effervescent charmer who has long orbited within Merced County farming circles.

Among friends and business associates, she felt energized by the event and decided she would get more involved with the school. Raised with 10 siblings by a French professor father and a school teacher mother, Downey said she knew then it felt right to give the money to the school she had attended.

Merced College President Chris Vitelli was pleased to accept the generous gift from a former student.

“This donation comes at a time when student equity and access is paramount to all other priorities,” Vitelli said. “This gift will significantly contribute to our mission of student success.”

The donation will not be the last we see of Downey, who now wants to take other classes at the college. Her enthusiasm for learning is another gift.

“If you want to put your mind into it, you can do anything,” Susie Downey said. “Here I came to the U.S., and I spoke very little English. But I’m a success today. Think about that and follow that example.”