Burt McMurtry, longtime Stanford leader and champion for the arts, dies at 83

A Silicon Valley pioneer, McMurtry chaired Stanford’s Board of Trustees and helped transform the university into a center for the arts.

Burton “Burt” J. McMurtry, a highly regarded Stanford leader, volunteer and philanthropist, died peacefully at his home in Palo Alto on Sept. 2 surrounded by family. He was 83.

Burt McMurtry

Burt McMurtry, who died Sept. 2, helped shape Stanford’s academic initiatives over four decades through his work as an adviser and volunteer. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

McMurtry was renowned in Silicon Valley as an early venture capital investor. At Stanford, he was equally influential, shaping academic initiatives over the course of four decades through his work as an adviser and volunteer. He served on Stanford’s Board of Trustees from 1997 to 2008, including four years as chair. Earlier this year, McMurtry and his wife, Deedee, received Stanford’s Degree of Uncommon Man and Degree of Uncommon Woman, the university’s highest award honoring alumni.

“Burt inspired us all with his lifelong curiosity and his commitment to higher education,” said Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne. “I am profoundly grateful for Burt’s insight, his thoughtful service, and his generosity to Stanford over the last 40 years. He and Deedee have had a tremendous impact on every part of our university community, from the arts to engineering, medicine, graduate education and economic policy research. We will continue to feel Burt’s contributions at Stanford for decades to come.”

Silicon Valley pioneer

McMurtry was born and raised in Houston, Texas, and met his wife in high school. They both attended Rice University and moved west so that McMurtry could pursue graduate studies at Stanford while working for Sylvania Electric Projects. He earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering in 1959 and a doctorate in 1962.

After working as an engineer, McMurtry pursued a career in Silicon Valley’s emerging venture capital field. He co-founded several venture capital partnerships, including Technology Venture Investors and Institutional Venture Associates, and helped fund companies including Adaptec, Altera, Compaq, Intuit, Linear Technology Corporation, Microsoft, Nellcor, PMC Sierra, Quantum, SpectraLink, Sun Microsystems, Synopsys, VeriFone and Visio.

“Burt had a reputation in the Valley not only for being a great venture investor, but also for having the highest ethical standards,” said President Emeritus John Hennessy, the Shriram Family Director of the Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program. “He brought these qualities to his work at Stanford, where he worked tirelessly to advance the university’s mission while setting a high bar for volunteers.”

Champion for the arts at Stanford

The McMurtrys developed an interest in the arts during their earliest years together, starting with a love of classical music and visits to local arts fairs. While Burt was attending Stanford, Deedee joined the Stanford museum as a volunteer. Later, they would serve as volunteers together.

Burt McMurtry and his wife, Deedee

Burt McMurtry and his wife, Deedee, received Stanford’s Degree of Uncommon Man and Degree of Uncommon Woman, the university’s highest award honoring alumni. (Image credit: Steve Castillo)

“Burt and Deedee were a truly collaborative team,” said Roberta Denning, ’75, MBA ’78, who worked with the couple as chair of the Stanford Arts Advisory Council. “Their individual personalities complemented each other and their shared enthusiasm was contagious.”

During his 11-year tenure as a member of the Board of Trustees, McMurtry served on a review committee for the Cantor Arts Center that examined the museum’s relatively isolated location on campus. The committee suggested consolidating arts-related activities near the museum – a recommendation that would ultimately give rise to an arts district on campus.

In 2004, McMurtry began speaking with local collectors Harry W. “Hunk” and Mary Margaret “Moo” Anderson about Stanford’s deepening commitment to the arts. These conversations helped pave the way for the Anderson family’s 2011 decision to give the core of its extensive postwar American collection to the university. The McMurtrys contributed generously to the building that houses the Anderson Collection at Stanford University as well as the construction of Bing Concert Hall, which opened in 2013.

Perhaps their most visible legacy on campus, however, is the McMurtry Building for the Department of Art & Art History. The McMurtrys made the decision to support this project during a 2007 flight home from a Stanford event in Washington, D.C. As the couple began discussions with then President Hennessy about relocating the department to be closer to the Cantor Arts Center, Hennessy asked if they would consider making the lead gift.

“We thought about it for about five minutes and said, ‘Sure,’” Burt McMurtry once said.

The 96,000-square-foot McMurtry Building opened in 2015. In her remarks at the dedication, Deedee McMurtry noted, “We wanted a ‘wow’ building. We got a ‘wow’ building.”

A thoughtful and effective leader

McMurtry joined the university’s network of major gift volunteers in 1981 and went on to advise Stanford leaders throughout three university-wide campaigns.

Recalling his many conversations with McMurtry, President Emeritus Gerhard Casper said, “When Burt turned to you and wanted to hear what you had to say, he was really curious. Good listeners are people who are curious.”

McMurtry served on the School of Engineering Dean’s Strategic Council, the Engineering Venture Fund, the Engineering Major Gifts Committee, the Hoover Institution Board of Overseers, the Dean’s Advisory Council for the Graduate School of Business, the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research Advisory Board, the Stanford Arts Advisory Council and the Cantor Arts Center Director’s Advisory Board.

As vice chair of the campaign for the Stanford Graduate Fellowship program, McMurtry helped the university secure a more flexible source of funding for Stanford graduate students in science, math and engineering. The program represented a historic shift away from reliance on declining federal support and strengthened Stanford’s research enterprise across academic disciplines.

This focus on interdisciplinary work became a hallmark of The Stanford Challenge, the university-wide campaign from 2006 to 2011 that focused on finding solutions to a wide range of real-world problems. McMurtry played a key role during the campaign, both as board chair and as a member of the campaign executive committee, traveling around the world to engage Stanford alumni and friends.

Bruce Dunlevie, MBA ’84, a longtime friend and business associate who served with McMurtry on the Board of Trustees, said McMurtry’s intellectual curiosity and infectious enthusiasm permeated his work and made him a thoughtful and effective leader.

“Burt permitted any and all topics to be raised. He encouraged people to ask questions. He wanted to find the best answer that was in the room and didn’t ever pretend to know it himself,” Dunlevie said.

McMurtry is survived by his wife of 62 years, Deedee; his children, Cathy and John McMurtry, MS ’86, and their respective spouses James Mclaughlin and Janet Moody; a brother, James McMurtry III, MD; four grandchildren, Evan Lodes, ’07, Amanda Wu, ’09, MA ’10, Garrett McMurtry and Suzanna McMurtry; and two great-grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned for Oct. 8 at 2:30 p.m. in Memorial Church.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made in Burt’s memory to Stanford University. Gifts may be mailed to: Stanford University, Development Services, P. O. Box 20466, Stanford, CA 94309-0466. Gifts may also be made online at http://giving.stanford.edu/goto/writeingift by typing “Burton J. McMurtry Memorial Fund” in the space provided.

Media Contacts

Anneke Cole, Stanford Office of Development: (650) 724-3298, annekec@stanford.edu