Pat and Lore Harp McGovern recently pledged $350 million over 20 years to create the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. It is believed to be the largest gift ever pledged to a U.S. university.

Not only does the couple hope the Institute will find treatments for depression, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease, but their dream is that the institute will explore human learning and communication and will ultimately create a more peaceful world.

Lore says she hopes one day to learn what causes learning disabilities and prejudice. Pat says he hopes for us to learn to communicate without misunderstanding and distrust.

“I would love to see the scientific discoveries of this research center reduce misunderstanding in the world,” he says. “Often, if you get people who have conflicting viewpoints together in the same room for 36 hours they wind up being fast friends. Once you get them to really communicate, they see how much they have in common.”

“We think this power to bring people together emanates from the brain,” Lore says. “The brain is such uncharted territory that to play a role in this discovery is really exciting.”

Began business

A German-born entrepreneur, Lore in 1976 co-founded Vector Graphics, one of the earliest PC companies. She is now involved with several start-ups in Silicon Valley.

Pat began International Data Group in 1964, selling his Ford station wagon to raise $5000. Now IDG is the world’s leading computer publishing, research, and exposition management company. The Boston group publishes 290 computer newspapers and magazines in 80 countries, including Computerworld, PC World, and the “For Dummies” instruction books. Last year, IDG had $2.56 billion in sales.

Raised in Philadelphia, the son of a construction manager, Pat’s Dad told him the key to business success was to balance both sides of the brain. The logical, left side of the brain says find a need and fill it. And the humanistic, right side of the brain says do something useful for other people.

Pat followed his Dad’s advice when he began IDG. “My vision always has been to help everyone in the world realize how computers can make their lives more fulfilling.”

In 1954, with $80 he earned on a paper route, Pat assembled plywood, linoleum, and flashlight bulbs, into an unbeatable tic-tac-toe machine that won him a scholarship to MIT. Then, he earned a degree in 1959 in life sciences with a special interest in neurophysiology.

Both McGoverns have had an interest in the brain since childhood. When Pat was 14 he read Giant Brains: Machines That Think. He was filled with ideas about how computers could amplify the memory and the analytical power of the brain.

And Lore recalls a visit to a science museum when she was 5, where a human brain was preserved in formaldehyde. “I asked my parents, ‘Can I touch it? Is this thought?’ It was a pretty powerful impression.”

Since the announcement of their gift to MIT, the pair has gotten hundreds of letters from strangers. “I didn’t anticipate the outpouring of communication we received,” Pat says. “I thought it was just extraordinary that people would take the time to write three or four-page letters saying, my child has a learning disability or my husband has a brain injury, and I am delighted that you’re helping to accelerate progress in this area.”

Actually it’s not so amazing that people would want to thank the McGoverns, since Pat makes it a point always to thank others.

Employees call him Uncle Pat. During the holidays, he personally visits each of his workers. He talks with everyone individually and hands them a cash bonus. In the early days, it took him an hour to visit his 12 employees. Now he visits every employee in the U.S., 3500 people, and it takes three-and-a-half weeks.

“I find it very gratifying. When you meet people, you see their body language and experience their attitude, and you get so much insight into their motivation.”

Risk-takers

In business and in life Pat and Lore are both risk-takers who love adventure.

“Don’t be hesitant about acting on your dreams,” Pat says. “The key characteristic of people who achieve something of significance and those who don’t is not their intellectual brilliance, but their persistence. Never get discouraged. Just keep going, never yielding to your anxieties.”

Pat once jumped out of an airplane holding an IDG sign for a company video. “People knew I was afraid of heights. I wanted to convey, let’s not be inhibited by our fears, and I thought the way to dramatize it would be to jump.

Lore already had once jumped out of an airplane, and even though she says “it was scary as hell,” she did it because she loves a challenge.

Forget your fears, Pat says. Follow your instincts, and execute your dream. Have the courage to do it.

You have to embrace life, Lore says. “Make people feel strong and powerful, and make sure they think big ideas. Because if they think big, they will do big things.”

The biggest thing on their life journey so far is the McGovern Institute at MIT. “At the end of my life,” Lore says, “I want to leave something behind so people who had no idea who I was can benefit.

We don’t know exactly where the Institute will lead, but we can pretty much be sure that it will energetically move forward for many years to come.”