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Billionaire rains cash on UMass graduates to tune of $1,000 each, but says they must give half away

MEREDITH, N.H. (AP) — The clouds weren't alone in making it rain on the commencement ceremony at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth last week. On stage, billionaire philanthropist Rob Hale surprised the graduating class of more than 1,000 by pointing to a nearby truck holding envelopes stuffed with cash.

Huddling under ponchos and umbrellas at the soggy ceremony, the graduates yelled and cheered, their mouths agape, as Hale announced he was showering money upon them. Security guards then lugged the cash-filled duffel bags onto the stage.

Hale told the students each would get $1,000. But there was a condition: They were to keep $500 and give the rest away.

Hale said the greatest joy he and his wife Karen had experienced in their lives had come from the act of giving.

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“We want to give you two gifts. The first is our gift to you,” Hale told the students. “The second is the gift of giving. These trying times have heightened the need for sharing, caring and giving. Our community needs you, and your generosity, more than ever.”

The founder and chief executive of Granite Telecommunications, Hale is estimated by Forbes to have a net worth of $5.4 billion. He owns a minority stake in the Boston Celtics.

It's the fourth year in a row that he has given a similar gift to a group of graduating students. Last year it was to students at UMass Boston, and before that it was to students at Roxbury Community College and Quincy College.

But the students at UMass Dartmouth had no idea in advance Hale would be speaking — let alone giving away money.

“I was very surprised,” said Joshua Bernadin, who graduated with a chemistry degree. “Everybody around me was in shock for a few seconds, and then they were all so happy.”

Bernadin said he, too, was very happy to get the money. He hasn’t yet decided what to do with his $500, although it could go toward paying down his student loans. He plans to donate the other $500 to the theater company and gospel choir he was involved in at the university.

He said he liked the idea of being compelled to donate.

“I feel like a lot of people, especially in my generation, are very, like, ‘I need to take this, I need to take that.’”

He said that attitude was somewhat justified given the difficulty in getting established in today’s world, but it was also important to remember those who had helped along the way and to give back.

Hale told students his path to success had been rocky, after his previous company Network Plus filed for bankruptcy in 2002, during the dotcom crash.

“Have you ever met someone who lost a billion dollars before? Hale said, as he joked about giving the students career advice. "I may be the biggest loser you ever met, and you have to sit in the rain and listen to me.”

In an interview Monday with The Associated Press, Hale said part of the message he wanted to get across was that it was okay to take chances in life and fail.

He said he and his wife had started the tradition of cash giveaways in the thick of the pandemic when students had little to celebrate.

The most impactful part of it was hearing the heartfelt messages from those who had benefited from the students' gifts, he said, from struggling local organizations to families that could suddenly afford Christmas gifts.

Graduating students that didn’t attend the ceremony missed out on the money. Hale said he hears from some afterward every year, with a variety of reasons for their absences.

“We say to them, one of the messages is, you’ve got to show up," Hale said.

He said local elementary schools personalize the two envelopes given to each of the students. One says “Gift” and one says “Give” and each contains $500. He acknowledged there was no way to ensure the students give away half the money.

“But I believe that the vast majority do the right thing and then are joyful because of it," he said.

Hale is — unsurprisingly — in hot demand as a commencement speaker, and he said he plans to give away more cash next year. But which commencement he will attend will again remain a surprise.

Nick Perry, The Associated Press