Dains establishes ‘transformational’ student success fund

Endowment will provide resources for emergency and educational enrichment expenses

Portrait photo of Stephanie and John Dains
Generous gifts from Emeritus Trustee John Dains and his late wife, Stephanie, have benefited Washington University students for many years. (Photo: Hilary Hood)

Washington University alumnus and Emeritus Trustee John Dains, BSBA ’68, says his time at WashU was the most significant experience of his life. It was where he met his late wife, Stephanie, AB ’69, and many lifelong friends. And it was where he and Stephanie built invaluable skill sets in their respective majors of business administration and psychology.

“When I look back and do the six degrees of separation, Washington University is always there,” he says. “It shaped our lives, our relationships, and our successes.”

Now Mr. Dains is empowering today’s students to take advantage of the abundant opportunities available at the university by pledging $8 million to endow an undergraduate student success fund that will dramatically increase resources available to help those with financial need cover emergency and educational enrichment expenses.

“There are certain moments in a university’s history that can be described as transformational. The establishment of the Stephanie Brooks Dains and John Dains Student Success Fund is one of these moments for Washington University,” says Chancellor Andrew D. Martin.

“John and his late wife, Stephanie, have a distinguished legacy of helping students at the university in meaningful ways. This gift continues that legacy,” Martin adds. “I am truly grateful for this much-needed support that will strengthen our efforts to ensure that all students can fully engage in the WashU experience.”

Supporting student retention

The gift is believed to be one of the largest donations to a university for student support—costs that fall outside the parameters of a standard financial aid package, such as a computer or a suit for a job interview. A lack of resources for these expenses can impede students’ successful advancement through Washington University.

The university has made substantial progress in attracting and enrolling students with financial need in recent years, growing its number of Pell Grant-eligible first-year students from 6% in 2013 to 16% in 2020 and offering financial aid programs such as the WashU Pledge to those whose families make less than $75,000 a year.  

I am truly grateful for this much-needed support that will strengthen our efforts to ensure that all students can fully engage in the WashU experience.

Chancellor Andrew D. Martin

But providing access to a Washington University education is just the beginning. The university also is committed to ensuring all students have the resources they need to succeed.

“Success comes from being able to take full advantage of the total WashU experience,” says Rob Wild, AB ’93, associate vice chancellor for student affairs and dean of students. “Some students can’t fully partake in university enrichment opportunities, like joining a club or attending a musical performance, because of the costs. And there are emergencies that may pop up—a student may suddenly need airfare home or a new pair of eyeglasses.

“This important gift from Mr. Dains could mean the difference between students staying and completing their WashU education or dropping out.”

The fund will be administered through the university’s Office for Student Success. Students may begin submitting applications for support in the fall.

Mr. Dains is CEO emeritus of Helm Financial Corp., a leading railcar and locomotive operating leasing company based in San Francisco and now owned by Wells Fargo. His brother, Michael, AB ’76, MBA ’80, also is a WashU graduate, as is Michael’s daughter, Hannah, AB ’20.

Stephanie Dains was an art therapist and teacher at the California School for the Blind. In addition to her psychology degree from WashU, she earned a master’s degree in teaching from Webster University in St. Louis and an art therapy certificate from the University of California, Berkeley. In 2006, she started the Art4Moore foundation in honor of her mother. The organization provided art supplies and resources for teachers, students, and older adults.

The couple were longtime supporters of the university until her death at age 69 in 2016.

“Stephanie would have wholeheartedly supported this gift and its focus on making it possible for students to take advantage of all that university life has to offer,” Mr. Dains says. “Supporting students through scholarships has always been near and dear to us, and it pleases me that her name and impact will live on in the successful lives of Washington University graduates.”

Commitment to students

The Dains’ support of the university goes back to their early years as alumni. In 1970, they made their first gift, to Olin Business School. They continued to support the Annual Fund over the years, eventually receiving recognition as members of the Danforth Circle Chancellors Level of the William Greenleaf Eliot Society, reserved for donors who make yearly gifts of $50,000 or more.  

In the 1990s, they joined the San Francisco Regional Cabinet, becoming more involved with the university and the San Francisco alumni community. Mr. Dains was elected to the Board of Trustees in 2009 and became an emeritus trustee in 2018.

Stephanie would have wholeheartedly supported this gift and its focus on making it possible for students to take advantage of all that university life has to offer.

Trustee Emeritus John Dains, BSBA ’68

The couple endowed the Mary E. and Charles V. Dains, Sr. Scholarship in 2005 in honor of Mr. Dains’ parents. They went on to establish scholarships at Olin Business School and in Arts & Sciences, in addition to supporting universitywide scholarships.

In 2008, they made a $1.25 million gift to name the main dining hall of the newly built Danforth University Center. The John F. and Stephanie Brooks Dains Great Dining Hall on the first floor of the facility is a popular gathering space for the university community.

The couple enjoyed hosting university-related events and meeting with students, including those who received their scholarships. They were known to invite students studying abroad in Paris to their home there for Thanksgiving dinner.

Mr. Dains’ latest gift extends the couple’s dedication to students in a new direction—ensuring they have the resources they need to thrive at the university. This goal resonates with Mr. Dains. As a WashU student, he walked to the celebrated Parkmoor restaurant near campus with friends on Sunday evenings, when meals were not served in the dining facility in the South 40 residential area. He remembers feeling unsettled that some classmates could not afford to join in this ritual, and his commitment to equitable participation for all students grew when he became a university trustee.

“When I joined the board, I was put on the undergraduate student experience committee, and I saw how important it is for students to participate in all aspects of university life,” he says. “I hope the Dains Student Success Fund is a game changer. I’m happy to be able to do it.”