The email that arrived on a Saturday morning stunned and excited Tom McNally.
“I’m interested in donating $30 million of materials to the University of South Carolina,” said the message from W. Graham Arader III, a leading collector of historic maps and natural history art work and an acquaintance of McNally. “When would you have time to talk with me?”
McNally, dean of libraries at USC, says he typed as fast as he could a message that read simply “Now!”
Arader laughed Thursday when told of McNally’s version of that Saturday. “That’s not what he did,” Arader said. “He got right on a plane and flew up here and we made a deal.”
After a couple of meetings, the process of turning over thousands of documents to USC had begun.
The Arader donation includes about 15,000 natural history watercolors, woodcuts, engravings, lithographs, chromolithographs and maps from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The new donation is so large, two full-time employees will be hired to process and catalog the collection, McNally said.
The email was just the start of what Arader hopes will be a tradition of surprising revelations. He wants USC to display the art work and maps throughout the campus, subtle reminders to students of the important roles played by early naturalists and explorers.
McNally and Mary Anne Fitzpatrick, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, pledged to encourage professors to incorporate the art work in class assignments. Arader, who developed his love for old maps while a student at Yale, wants his donation to inspire other students.
Some of the most valuable engravings might be available only in the USC library. But plans already are in the works to place three early Audubon illustrations in the President’s House, and less valuable works could show up just about anywhere on campus.
“There are lots of other pieces that we can put in the classrooms,” McNally said.
McNally won over Arader with that concept.
“They have pledged that they will use these works of art in the school and not put them in drawers and have them disappear,” said Arader, 62.
He has donated works to dozens of universities and museums, but Arader said his focus now is on USC.
“The fancy schools (like his alma mater) they’ve already got so much stuff,” Arader said. At USC, he feels his donation raises a very good natural history collection at USC to a great collection.
USC’s Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections already had original editions of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America” — USC was the first public university to subscribe to it — and donated copies of original editions of Mark Catesby’s “Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands.”
Arader made his fortune collecting and selling historic maps. He lives in New York and his company has galleries in King of Prussia, Pa., Houston, Philadelphia, New York and San Francisco. Through 40 years in the business, he branched out from cartography to include the early natural history works.
He gave about $2 million worth of materials to USC in 2011 and liked dealing with the folks in Columbia. “Tom is charming,” Arader said. “He got under my skin.”
Invited to lecture to a USC class last year, Arader said he was impressed. The campus and the students didn’t have that snooty feel of some campuses. The kids dressed nicely and seemed eager to learn.
“The campus looked great,” he said. “The kids looked great. They seemed like regular, great young men and women.”