Elisabeth DeLuca has already doled out $250 million of her fortune toward conservation and education and earmarked another $600 million to charitable foundations. With billions in cash expected from Subway’s pending sale, she appears poised to give away much more.
By Jemima McEvoy, Forbes Staff
The University of Connecticut announced its single biggest gift ever on October 6, a $40 million donation from one of its alumni to build a new nursing school facility. “If you don’t know who Elisabeth DeLuca is,” Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont said about the donor at a State Bond Commission meeting that day, where the legislature approved an additional $30 million to help fund the nursing school expansion, “I recommend you stop by a Subway and get something to eat.”
That’s because the donor to UConn is Elisabeth DeLuca, 76, the low-profile widow of Subway cofounder Fred DeLuca, who died of leukemia in 2015. A former nurse, DeLuca and her son Jonathan inherited the fortune including a stake in the business and billions in cash, according to Forbes’ reporting. Then in August, just six weeks before her record-breaking gift to UConn became public, she and the family of deceased Subway cofounder Peter Buck agreed to sell the sandwich chain to private equity firm Roark Capital in a $9.7 billion deal that will put another estimated $3.4 billion in cash into her family’s pockets; Roark declined to comment on when the deal is expected to close.
One of the richest women in the world, Elisabeth DeLuca is worth an estimated $8.2 billion but she’s far from a household name and there are just a handful of photos of her online. Behind the scenes, DeLuca has quietly been forging a legacy separate from Subway and from that of her late husband – largely through giving away the fortune he built.
Forbes’ reporting reveals that the University of Connecticut donation is just the latest gift. DeLuca already funneled at least $710 million of cash and stock into two family foundations between 2015 and 2021, per an analysis of the most recent available IRS filings. While most of the money was put into a foundation set up by her husband in 1997, Elisabeth incorporated another one in her name in December 2020 and moved $250 million into it the next year.
As of 2021, the foundations had doled out $100 million to mostly Florida and Connecticut area charities that support education and youth groups like Boys and Girls clubs. (She grew up in Connecticut and is now based Pompano Beach, Florida, where she owns a $1.2 million two-bedroom apartment in a beachfront luxury high-rise.)
Her biggest single donation so far has come outside her foundation. In late 2020, she gave 27,000 acres of land in Osceola County, Florida to the University of Florida. Smack in the middle of Florida’s “wildlife corridor,” the land is home to some of the state’s rarest plants and animals, like the Gopher tortoise and the endangered Grasshopper sparrow. It was originally purchased for nearly $140 million by her husband with local developer Anthony Pugliese in 2005 for a development known as “Destiny.”
The partners had planned to build an “eco-sustainable city” of upwards of 200,000 residents, The National Real Estate Investor reported in a 2009 interview with Pugliese. The project alarmed local environmentalists who believed it would destroy much of the natural habitat. In fact, 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 so it could place the land under a conservation easement and prevent any further development. But its bid came up about $30 million short of what Pugliese and DeLuca offered, according to Richard Hilsenbeck, a retired director of The Nature Conservancy. It was just as well, as the project fell apart.
By 2009, the partners were in court. DeLuca sued Pugliese for fraud, conspiracy and unjust enrichment, among other charges, alleging the developer had created fictitious invoices related to the project. Pugliese responded by suing DeLuca for alleged breach of contract and predatory lending among other things, accusing the Subway cofounder of pushing him out of his own project. DeLuca ultimately won, though he died before the legal battle concluded. Pugliese was sentenced to six months in jail in 2015 (and reportedly spent four months behind bars) after he pleaded no contest to conspiracy to defraud the late Subway cofounder of more than $1 million. He was ordered to pay more than $20 million to DeLuca’s estate in the civil case, after two separate rulings in 2017 and 2018.
Jack Payne, the former senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the University of Florida who helped organize DeLuca’s donation of the land, says he was approached by DeLuca via her lawyers the same year as the final ruling. “Elisabeth, from what I was told, had fallen in love with the property,” recalled Payne, who has since retired from the university. DeLuca wanted to donate the land to the University of Florida “if we could guarantee that it would never be built [on].” So Payne, the former director of conservation for land protection for wetlands conservation nonprofit Ducks Unlimited, helped set up a structure in which the University of Florida owned the land, but Ducks Unlimited assured its perpetual conservation by enforcing its conservation easement. The land, now called the DeLuca Preserve, is being used as a “living classroom and laboratory” for students and researchers at the university, according to the University of Florida.
“This donation, it’s the best conservation news the state of Florida has had in a very, very, very long time,” said Julie Morris of the National Wildlife Refuge Association. “Its significance can’t be overstated.”
DeLuca’s dedication to philanthropy has roots in her own humble upbringing. In 1954, when she was about seven years old, her family immigrated from the former German province of East Prussia, which became a battleground during World War II when the Soviet Red Army invaded Adolf Hitler’s Reich. (After the war, the land was split between Russia and Poland). They landed in the U.S. with no money and with no one able to speak English, according to a 2006 University of Connecticut article about the family. The publication, which featured interviews with DeLuca and her two siblings, said DeLuca’s mother, Elsa Kosgalwies Adomat, didn’t attend school past the eighth grade but was determined to make sure her children all got good educations. Elisabeth and her two siblings were the first in their family to go to college, and they later set up a scholarship in their mother’s honor at their 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 relocating to Bridgeport, Connecticut in his teens. “For us,” Elisabeth DeLuca said in a rare 2018 interview with the Yale School of Medicine, the hospital network where her husband was treated for leukemia before his death in 2015, “education was a road to being self-sufficient.”
The pair began dating when they were in high school in Connecticut. In 1965, when he was 17, Fred DeLuca started his submarine sandwich business with family friend Peter Buck in Bridgeport. While Fred focused on opening new locations of what would later become Subway, Elisabeth got her degree in nursing at UConn before getting a job at nearby Bridgeport Hospital.
They married in 1969, the same year Elisabeth graduated from the University of Connecticut, according to a wedding announcement published in The Bridgeport Post. The newlyweds both found quick success. Within a decade, Fred had 16 restaurants across the state. Elisabeth, meanwhile, was soon promoted to head nurse of intensive care services, overseeing the nurses in the ICU, according to the University of Connecticut. “It was really satisfying to work with patients and families going through difficult situations,” DeLuca told the Yale School of Medicine.
DeLuca gave up nursing decades ago and worked at Subway writing operations manuals, but has never spoken publicly about the business, not even when a group of franchisees appealed to her directly in 2021 about the difficulties they faced during the pandemic. She also kept quiet despite reports of 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 attorney responded to multiple requests for comment.
One thing the couple didn’t do together is give away much money, despite their growing wealth. (Forbes first listed Fred DeLuca as a billionaire in 2004.) While Fred was alive, the couple donated less than $1 million a year on average. Elisabeth stepped it up almost immediately and, in addition to the land donation, has so far given a collective $100 million to hundreds of nonprofits, including after school programs, a community college and the Yale New Haven Hospital Network, according to her foundations’ filings.
In Florida, the DeLuca Foundation has developed a reputation for wanting “to make the biggest impact and serve the most underserved,” said Debra Lee-Thomasset, the CEO and program director of The Arc at the Glades, a nonprofit that offers services, including vocational training, for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the Palm Beach-adjacent Glades County. Lee-Thomasset said that the DeLuca Foundation reached out to her nonprofit in 2021 and paid to fix up their facility, which was rundown at the time.
“I’m not even sure how they heard about us,” Lee-Thomasset said. “They gave us money just to make the repairs so we could keep our programs going when we had no other options for money.”
DeLuca’s style of philanthropy falls in line with a new cohort of women quietly giving away their fortunes, with none of the pomp and flash that some donors lean into. That includes philanthropists like Lynn Schusterman, who’s given away $2.5 billion to causes including reproductive equity and the Jewish community, and Laurene Powell Jobs, who has pledged $3.5 billion to environmental causes. Perhaps the best known is MacKenzie Scott, the billionaire ex-wife of Amazon founder and chairman Jeff Bezos. Scott has given away at least $14.4 billion since receiving a 4% stake in Amazon as part of the 2019 divorce settlement. The pace and scope of her donations–much of which have gone to community-focused groups that serve the needy–have far surpassed that of many longtime philanthropists.
DeLuca has a lot of catching up to do, but her recent gifts and her coming windfall suggest this low-key donor could be about to make some bigger moves.