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'How can I help?' Keith Sinclair's decade of support for minority students

Keith Sinclair at this year's scholars dinner

Keith Sinclair, center, at this year's scholars dinner. See larger image

This year is the 10th anniversary of Keith Sinclair's support for students at Cornell. Over the course of a decade, his three scholarships – the Sinclair Jackie Robinson Scholarship, the Esther and Keith Sinclair Family Scholarship and the Esther and Keith Sinclair Scholarship – have supported more than 100 undergraduate students, the majority studying in the School of Hotel Administration (SHA).

Sinclair himself is not a college graduate. He's a self-made California real estate mogul who was fired from his first job for throwing a punch in the heat of a business deal gone wrong. Seeing that punch as evidence of Sinclair's toughness and passion to represent his client's interest, two real estate investors decided to take him under their wing and teach him all they knew.

Today, Sinclair is president of Sinclair Co. in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

When he was young, he visited Cornell's Ithaca campus with a friend, Paul J. Miller '70. He became friends with Miller's fraternity brother, Ezra Cornell '70, great-great-great-grandson of the university's founder and a university trustee.

Sinclair scholar Stefan Dixon '13

Sinclair scholar Stefan Dixon '13. See larger image

"When it was time for his eldest son to go to college," Cornell recalls with a twinkle in his eye, "Keith called me and asked which Ivy League school I'd recommend."

Both of Sinclair's children – Kevin Sinclair '05 (Human Ecology) and Kelly Sinclair '07 (Hotel) – followed Ezra Cornell's advice to their father by attending Cornell.

When visiting his son during a Cornell parents' weekend, Sinclair made a discovery. "I was absolutely surprised by the lack of minority students at Cornell. Both our children went to Andover [an elite prep school], and Andover seemed to me to have more diversity than Cornell. Something wasn't right," Sinclair remembers. "I called my friend Bill Holland, who was on the board of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, and he said, 'Who do we know?' and I said 'Ezra.'"

Ezra Cornell got another call from Sinclair. "This time he asked me how he could give back," remembers Cornell. "I said: 'scholarships.'"

"And Keith's interest is not just in funding Sinclair Scholarships," Cornell explains. "He promotes funding scholarships at Cornell to anyone who will listen – sometimes to people and companies that did not expect they were interested in supporting Cornell students. He wants to see more scholarships for kids who need a 'good break.'"

Sinclair scholar Samantha Martinez 13

Sinclair scholar Samantha Martinez '13. See larger image

Sinclair and his first wife, Esther, established scholarship funds to support underrepresented minority students beginning in 2003.

Esther Sinclair died in 2008. That year, memorial gifts in her honor poured in from friends and relatives, increasing the value of the scholarship and allowing Cornell to give the Sinclair Family Scholarship to even more students than ever that year.

Since Esther's death, Keith Sinclair has continued the couple's tradition of hosting a dinner for their scholars on campus every year. This May, Sinclair and his then fiancé, Desi Callaway (they married in August), hosted the dinner in a private dining room at Banfi's restaurant in the Statler Hotel. Nine Sinclair Scholars attended the dinner, along with a handful of university senior administrators and Ezra Cornell.

Sinclair, a confident man with a calm yet intent gaze, listened happily as his scholars took turns talking about their studies at Cornell, their plans for the summer and their future beyond graduation.

"It's such a wonderful feeling," Sinclair says, "to see these kids do something great. All I can do is open doors – and Ezra Cornell has opened a lot of doors, too – but the students have to walk through them and turn the opportunities into something."

And the accomplishments of former Sinclair scholars are myriad, including several doctorates earned, national and international awards received, and a recent Fulbright fellowship. The Fulbright fellow among them, Choumika Simonis '11, attended Sinclair and Callaway's wedding this past summer. "Mr. Sinclair has always had my best interest at heart," she says, "and I feel blessed and grateful to have someone like him in my life." She spent the year teaching English at a secondary school in West Borneo, Indonesia, and is now enrolled in a master's degree program in community health education at Columbia University.

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