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He Couldn't Have Done It Without Her

November 08, 1994|ROBERT LEE HOTZ

The self-absorbed students crowding the walkway to USC's Heritage Hall parted before George A. Olah and Katherine Loker like the waters of the Red Sea.

The pair, chatting amiably about USC football, passed beneath a banner that urged: "George Olah/Nobel Prize Winner/Fight On."

Then Loker watched benevolently, as Olah was interviewed there for a campus football television program. He firmly reminded the host that Knute Rockne got his start as a chemistry teacher.

Loker, heir to the StarKist Tuna fortune, is Olah's most significant patron.

On the morning his Nobel Prize was announced, Loker was the first person Olah called with the news. She responded with the vase of yellow roses that now sits at the center of his office conference table.

She is the widow of Donald P. Loker, a Universal Pictures star in the 1930s who was an energetic philanthropist. She went to USC. Her husband went to Harvard. Consequently, there are certain constants in Loker's charitable giving.

In 1977, the couple originally donated about $1.8 million for a new building to house what is now called the Loker Hydrocarbon Institute--the year Olah came to USC. He now directs the institute.

Then the Lokers endowed a professorship in English at Harvard, followed by a professorship in chemistry at USC. Olah holds the chemistry chair.

In 1990, she gave USC $7 million to expand the chemistry research institute. Not long after, she donated $7 million to help renovate Harvard's Memorial Hall.

Today the new wing of the Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Institute--as it is formally known--is almost complete. The new wing bears her name alone.

The institute has grown to six faculty members, 15 research associates and about 50 graduate students. It attracts several million dollars every year from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy and other agencies. USC alumnus Harold Moulton also contributed more than $3 million.

While some alumni may boast that their college connections get them tickets on the 50-yard line at any USC or Harvard football games, only Loker can say that her school ties have earned her a front seat at a Nobel Prize ceremony: She has been invited to sit with Olah's family when Olah is scheduled to receive the award in Stockholm on Dec. 10.

And the president of Harvard made sure Loker received his handwritten note of congratulations.

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