Penelope “Penny” Stamps pushed buttons.
That’s one reason more than 900 students are attending colleges across the country, in particular at the University of Miami and the University of Michigan, as a result of the Stamps Scholars program she founded with her husband E. Roe Stamps IV. There may well be more than a 1,000 others who have enjoyed scholarships over the years that she and her husband have quietly supported.
Stamps, who died at 74 Thursday at her Coconut Grove home after battling leukemia, touched so many.
The Miami Humane Society. Ransom Everglades School. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. Grayvik Animal Care Center in Key Largo.
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Just a few that have been boosted by Stamps’ need to push buttons.
“You have to have something that is your passion button and I think sometimes it takes a while to find it,” Stamps told the Miami Herald in 2012. That year, she was singled out as one of six “South Floridians who make an impact.”
Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and a former publisher of the Miami Herald, first met the couple when he chaired the Florida Philharmonic, an arts organization the couple supported.
“Their philanthropy has been extraordinary and focused,” Ibargüen said in an email to the Herald. “In his remembrance, Roe mentions the more than 900 college students who are attending school as part of the Stamps Scholars in many different colleges and universities. He does not mention that they have been doing this for at least a decade. I talked with them about their decision to focus their philanthropy this way and I have watched it grow along the way. It is spectacular.”
Sometimes, for the Chicago-born Stamps, a former interior designer, that button was pushed for her.
For instance, In 1996, as she and her family slept in their Key Largo home, her beloved cat — rescued from a shelter, naturally — jumped on her to alert her to the smell of smoke. Stamps, her husband, daughter Annie and their dog safely escaped as the garage burned.
After, Stamps gave money for a new veterinary clinic to manage the 300 feral cats roaming Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo. For more than 20 years since, she was still “the driving force caring for the cats,” the Herald reported.
For Stamps, a philanthropist, art- and animal-lover, it was simply borne out of compassion and a human touch.
“That keeps me very, very grounded in the philanthropic world because I know it’s so hard to run a little charity,” she told the Herald. “Yeah, I could just write a check and endow it forever and that’s the simplest thing. But I want it to be able to stand on its own. I just don’t want to be the feeder.”
Stamps, who earned her bachelor of arts degree from the University of Michigan, is the namesake of the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design at the Ann Arbor university thanks to a $32.5 million gift in 2012. Her husband Roe notes it’s the only school in Michigan named after a woman. “An enduring testimony to her work at that great university,” he wrote for her family obituary.
Mary Sue Coleman, then-president of the University of Michigan, admired Penny and Roe for their generosity. “She and her husband have done such incredible work across the country,” she said Thursday.
“But what cemented our relationship was our mutual love of cats,” Coleman said, chuckling at the memory. “The thing I loved so much about her is they had this beautiful property and she and Roe supported all these activities but she became this refuge for all these homeless cats. With all the resources they had, she was willing to do this. We loved to talk about our cats.”
Not surprisingly, Stamps joked with a Herald reporter, “I’ve always been nutty for my pets. But I didn’t realize how nutty.”
Her husband Roe says that as the holidays approached, and she fought her illness, her thoughts turned to others. And her cat.
“She became increasingly concerned that her time was short and made sure that friends and family would receive cards and gifts making for a better Christmas. She even texted me from the hospital late one night to ensure that I had given (her favorite cat) Diego his insulin shot. What a special soul,” he shared in an email.
And when Coleman and Stamps weren’t trading notes on their furry friends over the years, Stamps was “validating the arts” at the University of Michigan and its surrounding community, Coleman said.
“She made a huge impact. Everything was a joy and a delight. She wanted the joy of arts to permeate regular people. She leaves a legacy all of us would love to have.”
Closer to her adopted South Florida, more than 80 students at the University of Miami have benefited from the Stamps Scholarship program.
“The University of Miami family is deeply saddened at the passing of Penny Stamps,” said UM President Julio Frenk.. “Her philanthropic partnership with Roe has recognized and rewarded academic excellence through the Stamps Family Scholarships. Her dedication to nurturing the brightest minds will be her enduring legacy at the U.”
Added Shelton Berg, dean of the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami: “Over the years, Penny and Roe Stamps have helped us transform the music school, but more importantly they have shown tremendous compassion and respect for our students. Penny, a dear friend, was just truly a brilliant and wonderful human being.”
A half century ago, she first met her husband Roe, a venture capitalist, in Washington. They would be married for 47 of those years, splitting their time between Boston and South Florida.
Hours after her passing, Roe Stamps has the last word:
“I told her when we were dating, ‘Don’t fall in love with me.’ And the reason was, I had figured what a wonderful person she was,” he said. “I didn’t think I was in her league. I could see she was falling in love with me and she was too good a person to do that.”
As Roe held her at her bedside Wednesday night, he shares one of their last conversations. “I reminded her of that last night. I don’t think we talked about it in 45 years. She said, ‘I’m glad I didn’t take your advice.’”
Stamps’ survivors include her mother Carmella Witt, husband Roe, her children Will Stamps and Annie Stamps-Ridgeway, grandchildren Hunter Stamps and Winnie Stamps-Ridgeway.
A funeral Mass will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 18, at St. Hugh’s Catholic Church, 3460 Royal Road, Coconut Grove.. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests a gift to the Penny W Stamps School of Art & Design at the University of Michigan.