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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Annandale resident gives half his money to charity


Prof. Richard Semmler teaches mathematics at the Annandale campus of Northern Virginia Community College and lives in a modest apartment in Annandale. Yet he’s given about $1.2 million to charity.

Semmler hasn’t won the lottery and he doesn’t have a hidden source of wealth. He has been able to donate half his annual income to his seven favorite charities by adopting an austere lifestyle. He drives a used car, buys furniture and clothes at thrift shops, doesn’t have a home phone or Internet access, and has never taken a vacation.

Semmler has contributed more than $500,000 to the Northern Virginia Community College Education Foundation, which has used the funds to support student scholarships, faculty and staff grants, and technology projects. On Jan. 14, the foundation honored Semmler for his generosity by naming a seminar room for him in NOVA’s Ernst Cultural Center.

Semmler started his philanthropy in 1970 with a $25 donation to Plattsburgh State University of New York, his alma mater, in gratitude for the scholarships that enabled him to attend college. His contributions to the college increased over the years and now total $10,000 a year.

On March 4, SUNY Plattsburgh President John Ettling and his colleagues presented Semmler with a Distinguished Service Award at a ceremony at NOVA in recognition of his charitable activities.

Semmler presents a key to the
Rodriguez family for a house they
built together in 2010 as part of
Habitat  for Humanity.
“As the years passed, I was introduced to other organizations. I liked what I saw and decided to get involved,” Semmler says. He not only gives money, he also volunteers with some of the groups he supports.

For the past 12 years, he has served food every Monday evening at the Central Union Mission, a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C.  He spends his Saturdays building houses for Habitat for Humanity. Over the years he’s contributed $260,000 to Habitat, which is enough to sponsor four houses in Northern Virginia and 12 in Tanzania.

Semmler never planned to become a philanthropist, he says. “If someone would have said to me you would be giving away $1 million, I never would have believed it,” he says.

“It happened gradually over the years,” he says, “and it became a part of my life.” He increased his donations every year, and 10 or 15 years ago, he started giving away 50 percent of his annual income. He has taken additional jobs in his spare time—as a book editor and maintenance man—to earn more money for his charities. “I have no financial obligations,” he says, noting that he probably couldn’t have been so generous if he had a family to support.

And it’s not something he talks about much. “I always kept it very quiet,” he says. Until a Washington Post article about Semmler came out in 2009, “people had no idea what I was doing,” including the students he teaches at NOVA. His brother didn’t even know about his charitable activities until he started getting attention in the press.

“I get a lot of satisfaction supporting charities,” he says, and despite some recent health issues, he plans to continue giving $50,000 to $65,000 a year. He believes “everybody everywhere should contribute to support the community where you live and to support something to do good in the world.” As to living austerely, he says, “I’ve gotten used to it. I don’t know anything else. This is my lifestyle, and I don’t want to change it.”


  1. I used to work with Dr. Semmler at the Extended Learning Institute at NOVA. He is an incredibly unique and giving individual. Thanks for such a great article!

  2. Professor Semmler was my Math teacher at NOVA. His dedication as a professor has helped make my dreams of a career change achievable. It is wonderful to see a man of such fine character recognized--I definitely hold him as a role model I encourage myself to live up to.