The mystery donor may have chosen Temple first.

Wasn't Oprah. Or so her people said.

Wasn't the estate of hotel billionheiress Leona Helmsley.

And scratch thoughts of the late Leonore Annenberg, wife of Walter, founder of TV Guide.

A mysterious philanthropist has fueled all sorts of media buzz - as well as boundless gratitude - by distributing more than $90 million to at least 18 state-related universities.

Literally and figuratively, the recipients cover the map. They're scattered from Alabama to Alaska, and include big schools with big names, such as Michigan State ($10 million), and smaller institutions, such as Penn State's Harrisburg campus ($3 million) and New Jersey's Montclair State ($5 million).

Behind it all appears to be a strategy that could change lives for generations, university officials and analysts say. Typically, the money was directed to two purposes--a school's general fund and scholarships.

Intriguingly, all of the schools have a female president or chancellor.

That pattern led femisting.com to dub the donor a "feminist fairy godmother."

"I don't have a clue," said Temple president Ann Weaver Hart. "... I really can't imagine who it is, if it's someone that I know."

"I think people are just guessing," said Susan Cole, president of Monclair State. "Nobody I've spoken to knows anything."

In Temple's case, the checks really were in the mail.

They arrived in January 2008 - in two envelopes from a bank in Arizona, as did Cal State Northridge. With regular postage. No registered mail. No delivery confirmation.

One held $1 million for the general fund.

The other had $4 million for scholarships for women and minorities.

"The person opening the mail had quite a shock," said Hart.

Temple used $1 million for student performance groups at its refurbished Baptist Temple and $4 million is in an endowment that has already generated scholarships to about 20 undergraduates this year, officials said.

Montclair got the same amounts, with similar designations, in early April. The total was the school's biggest donation ever.

Penn State - Harrisburg's two checks - $1.5 million each - arrived on April Fool's Day.

"Obviously, that gave us reason to pause," said Jason Ketter, director of development for Middletown school whose chancellor is Madlyn Hanes.

But make no mistake: Put into motion is a serious, "sophisticated" strategy "that really makes a difference in the life outcomes of people," said Katherina Rosqueta, executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania.

Some of America's most affordable schools will now be even more affortable, at a time when college degrees have become dramatically more important, said Rosqueta, whose group advises the charitably inclined how to get the most bang for the buck.

"Clearly the donor is investing in the type of student population that is a striving population, if you will, working hard to get a foothold in the American Dream," said Montclair's Cole.

The total amount has been exceeded before.

Walter and Leonore Annenberg gave hundreds of millions of dollars to the University of Pennsylvania, including a $120 million gift in 1993 for the Annenberg School of Communications.

Leonore, who died in March, was not behind the series of state-school donations, according to the Annenberg Foundation, which has offices in Radnor and Los Angeles.

Representatives for Oprah Winfrey and Leona Helmsley's estate have denied involvement, according to the Associated Press.

"It's very rare to get a gift that's totally anonymous in terms of the institutions not knowing who it is," said Cole.

Contact staff writer Peter Mucha at 215-854-4342 or pmucha@phillynews.com