Cordelia Scaife May, the heiress to a substantial banking fortune, left an indelible mark on the world through her unwavering commitment to philanthropy and environmental conservation.
Born on December 10, 1928, Cordelia was the daughter of Sarah Cordelia Mellon Scaife, an American heiress and philanthropist, and Alan Magee Scaife, an industrialist and president of the Scaife Company.
The Mellon Legacy
Cordelia Scaife May was a scion of the Mellon family, a name synonymous with wealth, philanthropy, and influence in the United States.
Her paternal grandfather, Judge Thomas Mellon, and her uncle, Andrew W. Mellon, a Secretary of the Treasury, played pivotal roles in shaping the nation’s economic landscape during the Great Depression. The Mellon fortune included significant holdings in Mellon Bank, Gulf Oil, and Alcoa, establishing the family as one of the wealthiest in the country.
Sarah Cordelia Mellon Scaife, Cordelia’s mother, continued the family’s tradition of philanthropy. Born on December 10, 1903, Sarah was an heiress to the Mellon fortune and a generous donor to various humanitarian causes.
She donated tens of millions of dollars to family planning, hospitals, disability and poverty issues, environmental conservation, and museums in the Pittsburgh region. Notably, her contribution of $35,000 equipped a virus research lab at the University of Pittsburgh, where Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine in 1955.
In honor of Sarah’s philanthropic contributions, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh opened the Sarah Scaife Gallery in 1974, showcasing major works from Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masters.
Sarah’s legacy of generosity extended beyond her lifetime, leaving an enduring impact on the cultural and medical landscape.
Cordelia’s Early Years
Cordelia Mellon Scaife, the younger of Sarah’s two children, was born into a life of privilege and responsibility. In 1927, Sarah married Alan Magee Scaife, an industrialist, and the couple had two children: Cordelia and Richard Mellon Scaife. Despite her affluent upbringing, Cordelia was an introvert, and her reclusive nature would characterize much of her adult life.
Her marriage to Herbert Arthur May Jr. in 1958 and subsequent divorce marked a period of personal turmoil, but Cordelia emerged from these challenges with an enduring commitment to philanthropy.
In 1973, she married Allegheny County District Attorney Robert Duggan. Cordelia’s dedication to supporting worthwhile causes mirrored the values instilled by her family.
Environmental Stewardship and Philanthropic Focus
Cordelia Scaife May’s philanthropic journey was notably marked by her deep commitment to environmental conservation and education.
In her later years, she was dedicated to protecting American Indian archaeological sites, donating much of her Westmoreland County property to a national preservation society. Her focus on environmentalism extended to supporting limits on immigration, driven by her belief that unchecked human population growth, urbanization, and migration to larger cities had significant environmental implications.
Colcom Foundation, a Pittsburgh-based charitable organization founded by Cordelia, played a central role in her philanthropic endeavors. In her will, Cordelia bequeathed all her personal property and Pennsylvania real estate, including over four hundred and fifty acres in Westmoreland County, to the foundation. Colcom Foundation, known for its commitment to environmental conservation and sustainability, became the custodian of Cordelia’s legacy.
Legacy Beyond Borders
Cordelia’s generosity transcended geographical boundaries. Her properties on Maui and Kauai were bequeathed to the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii and the National Tropical Botanical Garden, respectively.
Land she owned in Virginia found a purpose in supporting the International Academy for Preventive Medicine.
The Cordelia Scaife May Family Trust, established with funds inherited from her mother, found its home within Colcom Foundation. Cordelia’s strategic approach to philanthropy ensured that her legacy would continue to support causes aligned with her values.
Remembering Cordelia Scaife May
Cordelia Scaife May passed away in January 2005 at the age of 76 after battling pancreatic cancer.
Her brother, Richard Scaife, remembered her as someone who had “deep feelings for people and for causes.”
Cordelia’s dedication to environmental stewardship, education, and humanitarian causes continues to inspire those who benefit from her philanthropic legacy.
In a world where wealth often defines individuals, Cordelia Scaife May’s story is a testament to the transformative power of using privilege to make a positive impact. As Colcom Foundation and other organizations carry forth her legacy, Cordelia’s contributions to environmental conservation and philanthropy will endure, leaving a lasting imprint on the world she sought to improve.