The University of Connecticut announced its largest gift ever on Oct. 6, a $40 million donation from an alumnus to build a new nursing school. “If you don’t know who you are Elisabeth DeLuca,” said Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, “I recommend you stop at Subway to eat.”
That’s because UConn’s donor is Elisabeth DeLuca, 76, the discreet widow of UConn’s co-founder. MetroFred DeLuca, who died of leukemia in 2015. A former nurse, DeLuca and her son Jonathan inherited a stake in the business and billions in cash. In August of this year, just six weeks before her record donation to UConn became public, she and the family of late Subway co-founder Peter Buck agreed to sell the sandwich chain to the food company. private equity Roark Capital in a $9.7 billion deal that will put $3.4 billion in his family’s pockets. Roark has not commented on when the deal will close.
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One of the richest women in the world, Elisabeth DeLuca is worth an estimated $8.2 billion, but she is far from a household name and there are only a few photos of her online. Behind the scenes, DeLuca has been quietly forging a legacy separate from Subway and her late husband — largely by donating the fortune he built.
The donation to the University of Connecticut is just the latest. DeLuca has already sent $710 million in cash and shares to two family foundations between 2015 and 2021. Although most of it was invested in a foundation created by her husband in 1997, Elisabeth incorporated another in her name in 2020 and transferred $250 million to her the following year.
In 2021, the foundations distributed $100 million to Florida and Connecticut charities that support education and Boys & Girls Clubs. DeLuca grew up in Connecticut and now lives in Pompano Beach, Florida, where he owns a $1.2 million two-bedroom apartment in a luxury oceanfront high-rise.
Your biggest Donation so far it has come from outside its foundation. At the end of 2020, she donated 11,000 acres of land in Osceola County, Florida, to the University of Florida. Smack in the middle of Florida’s “wildlife corridor,” the property is home to some of the state’s rarest plants and animals, like the gopher tortoise and the endangered grasshopper sparrow. It was purchased in 2005 for nearly $140 million by her husband in partnership with local entrepreneur Anthony Pugliese for a venture known as “Destiny.”
The partners planned to build a “eco-sustainable city” with more than 200 thousand residents. This alarmed local environmentalists, who believed the project would destroy much of the natural habitat. When the heirs of prominent Florida businessman Latimer “Latt” Maxcy put the land up for auction in 2005, The Nature Conservancy of Florida tried to buy it to block any further development. However, his offer was $30 million below Pugliese and DeLuca’s bid.
In 2009, the partners were in court. DeLuca sued Puegliese for fraud, conspiracy and unjust enrichment, among other charges, alleging that the developer had created fictitious invoices related to the project. Pugliese responded by suing DeLuca for alleged breach of contract and predatory lending. DeLuca won, although he died before the legal battle was over. Pugliese was sentenced to six months in prison in 2015 (and reportedly spent four months in jail) after pleading no contest to the charges. He was ordered to pay more than $20 million to DeLuca’s estate in the civil case, following two separate rulings in 2017 and 2018.
Jack Payne, the former senior vice president of agriculture and natural resources at the University of Florida who helped organize the donation, says he was approached by DeLuca through his lawyers the same year as the final decision. “Elisabeth, from what I was told, fell in love with the property,” recalled Payne, now retired. DeLuca wanted to donate the land to the University of Florida “if we could guarantee nothing would be built.”
The land, now called the DeLuca Reservation, is being used as a “living classroom and laboratory” for university students and researchers, according to the University of Florida. “This grant is the best conservation news the state of Florida has received in a long, long, long time,” said Julie Morris of the National Wildlife Refuge Association. “Its importance cannot be overstated.”
DeLuca’s dedication to philanthropy is rooted in his humble beginnings. In 1954, when she was seven years old, her family immigrated from the former German province of East Prussia. The site was a battlefield during World War II when the Red Army invaded Germany. After the war, the land was divided between Russia and Poland. Elisabeth’s family landed in the U.S. with no money and without speaking English, according to a 2006 University of Connecticut article about the family. The publication, which interviewed DeLuca and his two brothers, said DeLuca’s mother, Elsa Kosgalwies Adomat, did not study beyond the eighth grade but was determined to ensure her children had a good education. Elisabeth and her two brothers were the first in their family to go to college and later established a scholarship in their mother’s honor at her alma mater, UConn.
Her husband, Fred, was also a first-generation college student who grew up in public housing in the Bronx, New York, before moving to Bridgeport, Connecticut, as a teenager. “For us,” said Elisabeth DeLuca in a rare 2018 interview, “education was a path to being self-sufficient.”
Fred and Elisabeth started dating in high school in Connecticut. In 1965, when he was 17, Fred DeLuca started his sandwich business with family friend Peter Buck in Bridgeport. While Fred focused on opening new locations of what would later become the MetroElisabeth graduated from UConn with a nursing degree before taking a job at nearby Bridgeport Hospital.
The newlyweds achieved quick success. Within a decade, Fred had 16 restaurants across the state. Elisabeth, in turn, was soon promoted to head nurse of intensive care services, supervising ICU nurses, according to the University of Connecticut. “It was very rewarding to work with patients and families going through difficult situations,” DeLuca told Yale School of Medicine.
DeLuca gave up nursing and worked at Subway writing operations manuals, but she has never spoken publicly about the business, not even when a group of franchisees turned to her directly in 2021 about the difficulties they faced during the pandemic. She also has not commented on her late husband’s extracurricular romantic life, including the allegation that he adopted a child with one of the women. Neither her foundation nor her lawyer granted interviews.
Fred was listed as billionaire by Forbes for the first time in 2004. While he was alive, the couple donated less than $1 million a year. Elisabeth increased donations almost immediately after her husband’s death. In addition to land, she has donated $100 million to hundreds of nonprofit organizations, including after-school programs, a community college and the Yale New Haven Hospital Network, according to her foundation’s records.
DeLuca’s style of philanthropy is in line with a new group of women who quietly give away their fortunes. Perhaps the best known is MacKenzie Scottthe billionaire ex-wife of the founder and president of Amazon, Jeff Bezos. Scott has donated at least $14.4 billion since receiving a 4% stake in Amazon as part of his 2019 divorce settlement. The pace and scope of his donations, many of which have gone to community-focused groups that serve needy, he handily outperformed many long-time philanthropists. DeLuca is far from that, but her recent donations suggest the low-key nurse could surprise.