In the nearly two-mile stretch that makes up Northwestern’s undergraduate campus, the name “Ryan” is hard to miss. It’s on anything from the University’s basketball arena to its nanotechnology lab. Behind the name are Patrick and Shirley Ryan, Northwestern alumni who graduated in 1959 and 1961, respectively. They are the biggest benefactors in the school’s history, with nearly $700 million donated to date. In September 2021, they added to their long history of financial support with a $480 million gift funding athletics, scholarships, nanotechnology and microeconomics, the largest the school has ever received.

Patrick, or Pat, as he is commonly referred to, first met Shirley in 1959 at Sheil Chapel on Sheridan Road. At the time, Pat was in his fourth year, about to complete his finance major and enter the world of insurance that would one day make him billions. Shirley, then a second-year majoring in English, was a member of the Sheil club at the Sheil Catholic Center and lived in the all-women Pembridge House. Although their initial interaction was brief, the two would reconnect and begin dating seven years later. Now, the two have been married for decades and have three children.

By the time the two met again, Pat had already left his job selling life insurance at Penn Mutual — a job which he had gotten through a Sigma Chi fraternity connection — to start his own company. Meanwhile, Shirley had studied in Paris at the Louvre and worked in Chicago.

After two decades spent expanding his own business, Penn Mutual merged with another insurance group to create a corporation called Aon, where Pat served as the CEO until his 2008 retirement. As Pat built his business, the couple also turned their attention to their alma mater. The family’s first major financial gift to the school resulted in the 1983 opening of Welsh-Ryan Arena, named for the couple’s parents.

"Obviously I wanted to make a lot of money. But it is the feeling of building and creating from nothing and watching it grow without limits that I really enjoy. With that comes money."

- Pat Ryan, in a 1976 Chicago Tribune profile

Though the Ryans’ September donation builds on programs and scholarships including the medical research and the new Center for Applied Microeconomics, the family is also maintaining their history of sports funding. Part of their gift will support the redevelopment of Ryan Field, the football stadium that was named in their honor in 1997.

“Shirley and I believe in the power of sports to develop the whole person — mind, body and soul for all students,” Pat Ryan said in a post by the University announcing the donation. “This holistic approach prepares Northwestern student-athletes to be the leaders of tomorrow.”