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Famed inventor Herbert Wertheim donates $50 million to alma mater Florida

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Ironically, the future of Florida's engineering school is bright partly because we've all gotta wear shades.

@ufalumni

The initial announcement had to be one of the most casual revelations of an eight-figure donation in the history of American higher education. After all, University of Florida president Kent Fuchs didn't even give the $50 million donation its own tweet last Sunday:

But no news outlet reported on the gift until Monday morning, when Gainesville Sun reporter Jeff Schweers revealed that the $50 million donation was coming from Herbert Wertheim, a Florida engineering graduate and doctor of optometry best known for inventing the ultraviolet light-blocking dyes that are used in the lenses of millions of pairs of sunglasses to this day.

Schweers wrote in that piece that the donation was announced at Florida's game against Tennessee in conjunction with a recognition of Wertheim, but that wasn't noted by anyone at the game — I checked Twitter scrupulously — that I could find. And Florida's official Twitter account didn't acknowledge the donation — except by retweeting Schweers's story until Tuesday, when it passed along the College of Engineering's announcement of a new $300 million fundraising campaign headlined by Wertheim's massive donation.

Also on Tuesday, Schweers penned a follow-up to his Monday piece, reporting that Florida would name the College of Engineering after Wertheim in recognition of his gift. That happened Thursday morning, as Florida formally announced and used a #WerthTheWait hashtag to celebrate the donation, the second-largest in school history behind business titan Al Warrington's $75 million pledge in 2014.

Wertheim's donation is the largest single cash donation to the school — Warrington's $75 million being termed a "pledge" probably has something to do with that — and the largest donation under Fuchs, who succeeded Bernie Machen as Florida's president in October 2014. (It's not Wertheim's first significant donation to higher education: In 2009, he made the largest donation to Florida International University in that school's history, and FIU now operates the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine as a result; in 2013, another $10 million donation resulted in FIU's Nicole Wertheim College of Nursing.)

Besides getting his name on the building, Wertheim's donation will help Florida expand its engineering program. The page for the college's fundraising program lists among its ambitious goals the construction of two buildings (one, the Engineering Innovation building, will also bear Wertheim's name) totaling 200,000 square feet for engineering students, an increase in tenure and tenure-track positions to 300, and an increase in engineering student enrollment to 10,000 within five years.

And given Wertheim's background in more technical engineering — he holds degrees from UF in electrical and computer engineering and worked at Cape Canaveral as one of the first NASA engineers in the American space program's infancy — it seems likely that Florida will be trying to boost many of those more "traditional" engineering programs to become more nationally competitive, or at least match the level of its stellar agricultural and biological engineering programs, currently ranked among the nation's top 10 such programs according to U.S. News and World Report.

Regardless of the intent of the gift, though, it's a phenomenally generous gesture from Wertheim, and securing it is a coup for Fuchs, who came to Florida from Cornell with a reputation for academic administration rather than fund-raising, a departure from with Machen, a career administrator with a knack for finding money.

Wertheim's donation proves Florida's future remains bright under Fuchs — even if it comes from a man who quite literally made his fortune in shades.