News and analysis
February 08, 2015

No. 41: Agnese Nelms Haury

Jeff Smith

Amount donated in 2014: Approximately $50-million

Agnese Helms Haury’s unusual life and career spanned the globe, from fighting to preserve Indian languages in the American Southwest to working in archaeological digs in the Middle East. Her father grew rich in part through lumber and construction, and yet her philanthropy embraced environmentalism, among other causes.

In a strange twist in her life, she befriended the accused Soviet spy Alger Hiss and spent decades trying to clear his name.

And upon her death last year at the age of 90, another unusual move: She left the bulk of her $50-million-plus estate to a university she never attended. Her gift to the University of Arizona Foundation will establish the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice. Ms. Haury came to know the university through her third husband, Emil Haury, a professor of anthropology there from 1937 until he retired in 1980.

Ms. Haury was from a prominent Houston family. Her father, Haywood Nelms, was a partner in the W.T. Carter and Brother Lumber and Building Company and the Houston Airport Corporation. Her mother, Agnese Carter Nelms, founded Planned Parenthood clinics throughout Texas in the 1930s.

Her focus on environmental and humanitarian causes and social-justice programs grew out of a career that took Ms. Haury around the world. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College with a history degree, she worked as an editor for the United Nations and later as a writer for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She traveled throughout Latin America, North Africa, and Southeast Asia, researching the economic and social issues people in those regions faced.

It was at the Carnegie Endowment that she met Mr. Hiss, then the nonprofit’s president. They developed a lifelong friendship and for the next 60 years she actively defended him. She established a professorship in his name at Bard College, donated to civil-liberties groups, and helped establish New York University’s Center for the United States and the Cold War and the university’s Alger Hiss Papers Project.

Ms. Haury participated in archaeological excavations in Europe, the Middle East, and the United States. Influenced by her husband’s work on Native-American populations, she became an avid supporter of preserving cultural artifacts of Native-American societies. She established the Inter-American Environmental Policy Center to help Native- American groups gain federal tribal recognition and supported research into vanishing Native American languages.

Send an e-mail to Maria Di Mento.