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Computer Cryptography Expert Makes Three New Gifts

By Chris Carroll

Jon Graff

Photo by Faye Levine

Jon C. Graff ’66, Ph.D. ’71 made three new gifts totaling $475,000 at UMD, establishing and maintaining a named lecture hall in the Chemistry Building, funding an endowed need-based Maryland Promise scholarship with preference for students in the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences, and an endowed prize for an outstanding student in the Historic Preservation Program in the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

Although Jon C. Graff ’66, Ph.D. ’71 earned his University of Maryland doctorate in biochemistry, he made his name and his living for decades in another field entirely.

Ten years and 17 academic publications after graduation, he realized he needed a change. So he designed his own educational program by taking a series of classes in math, computer science and statistics to determine what he’d do next.

What followed was a career culminating as a “cryptographic computer architect.” His work in digital communications ranged from pioneering new cellphone technology to developing cryptographic architectures that secured the internal communications of a major bank and the operator of California’s electrical grid.

He traveled the world for work, along the way exploring cultures and architecture from Southeast Asia to Finland. He also published the book “Cryptography and E-Commerce.”

Since he retired in the early 2000s, Graff has focused on avocations including cycling—he estimates he’s pedaled up to 120,000 miles—and going on paleontology digs in North America and Mongolia.

Another passion is giving to worthy causes nationwide, including three new gifts totaling $475,000 at UMD. He says it’s “payback” for the university preparing him, albeit indirectly, for success.

“I discovered I was very good at systems engineering and as a cryptographic computer architect,” he says. “Having that ability to see the big picture helped me, and that I developed in particular while studying biochemistry at Maryland.”

His gifts establish and maintain a named lecture hall in the Chemistry Building, fund an endowed need-based Maryland Promise scholarship with preference for students in the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences, and an endowed prize for an outstanding student in the Historic Preservation Program in the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. Through the Clark Challenge for the Maryland Promise, his scholarship gift was matched by the A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation. 

The three new gifts follow a previous one to name a chemistry lab in the Edward St. John Learning and Teaching Center.

Each reflects his experience in one way or another, he says, including his love of interesting structures “ranging from Stonehenge all the way to the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur,” and memories of sitting under a large periodic table that was old even when he was a student, and which now will be restored because of his gift.

Graff is fighting to keep up his enjoyment of life even as he faces advanced cancer, and says creating a diverse philanthropic legacy is part of that effort.

“When you’re looking at life’s end, it’s an instigator to think about what you want to do with what you have accumulated,” he says. “There’s a broad range of things I want to help with.”

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