A Story by Malcolm Forbes + The Rest of the Story

A lady in a faded gingham dress and her husband, dressed in a homespun threadbare suit, stepped off the train in Boston and walked timidly without an appointment into the Harvard University President's outer office.

The secretary could tell in a moment that such backwoods, country hicks had no business at Harvard, and probably didn't even deserve to be in Cambridge.

"We'd like to see the president," the man said softly.

"He'll be busy all day," the secretary snapped.

"We'll wait," the lady replied.

For hours the secretary ignored them, hoping that the couple would finally become discouraged and go away.

They didn't, and the secretary grew frustrated and finally decided to disturb the president, even though it was a chore she always regretted.

"Maybe if you see them for a few minutes, they'll leave!" she said to him.

He sighed in exasperation and nodded. Someone of his importance obviously didn't have the time to spend with them, and he detested gingham dresses and homespun suits cluttering up his outer office.

The president, stern faced and with dignity, strutted toward the couple.

The lady told him, "We had a son who attended Harvard for one year. He loved Harvard. He was happy here. But, about a year ago, he was accidentally killed. My husband and I would like to erect a memorial to him, somewhere on campus."

The president wasn't touched. he was shocked. "Madam, he said, gruffly, "we can't put up a statue for every person who attended Harvard and died. If we did, this place would look like a cemetery."

"Oh, no," the explained quickly, "we don't want to erect a statue. We thought we would like to give a building to Harvard."

The president rolled his eyes. He glanced at the gingham dress and homespun suit, then exclaimed, "A building! do you have any earthly idea how much a building costs? We have over seven and a half million dollars in the physical buildings here at Harvard!"

For a moment the lady was silent. The president was pleased. Maybe he could get rid of them now. The lady turned to her husband and said quietly, "Is that all it cost to start a university? Why don't we just start our own?"

Her husband nodded. The president's face wilted in confusion and bewilderment.

Mr. and Mrs. Leland Stanford got up and walked away, traveling to Palo Alto, California where they established the university that bears their name, Stanford University, a memorial to a son that Harvard no longer cared about.

You can easily judge the character of others by how they treat those who they think can do nothing for them.

The Rest of the Story...

Origins: This "Chicken Soup"-like tale warning us against the folly of judging people solely by appearances hit the Internet in mid-1998. As usual, the framework of the tale bears some general resemblance to the truth, but details have been altered that turn it into something quite different from the real story:

Leland Standord was a wealthy Sacramento merchant, a railroad magnate who built the Central Pacific Railroad (and drove the gold spike at Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869), and California's eighth governor 1862-63). He was hardly the type of person to dress in a "homespun threadbare suit," walk "timidly" into someone's office (especially without an appointment), or sit cooling his heels "for hours" until someone deigned to see him.

The Stanfords' only son died of typhoid fever at age 15, in Florence, Italy. That would have made him a bit young to have attended Harvard, and his death would hardly be described as "accidental."

The closest this story comes to reality is in its acknowledgement that the Stanfords did visit Harvard (among other schools) to gather ideas for creating an educational institution of their own (not to discuss endowing Harvard with some type of facility — the Stanfords had already decided that whatever facility they built would be their own, located in northern California). As Stanford's web site describes the incident:

The Stanfords returned to America in May and, before proceeding to Palo Alto, visited Cornell, Yale, Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They talked with President Eliot of Harvard about three ideas: a university at Palo Alto, a large institution in San Francisco combining a lecture hall and a museum, and a technical school. They asked him which of these seemed most desirable and President Eliot answered, a university. Mrs. Stanford then asked him how much the endowment should be, in addition to land and buildings, and he replied, not less than $5 million. A silence followed and Mrs. Stanford looked grave. Finally, Mr. Stanford said with a smile, "Well, Jane, we could manage that, couldn't we?"and Mrs. Stanford nodded her assent.

The Stanfords did found their university (modeled after Cornell and located on the grounds of their horse-trotting farm) in memory of their son (hence the school's official name of "Leland Stanford Junior University"), but not because they were rudely rebuffed by Harvard's president — because it was what they had intended all along.

A 2001 version of this e-mail falsely attributes the piece to Malcolm Forbes, the founder and publisher of Forbes (a highly respected business magazine).

The "rudely-spurned university endowment" theme of the Stanford story has played out at least once in real life. In July 1998, William Lindsay of Las Vegas contacted an unnamed Scottish institution of higher learning by telephone, saying he was minded to give some money to a university in Scotland. Taking him for a crank, he was rudely dismissed by the person he spoke to. His next call to Glasgow University met with a warmer reception, and in March 2000 that school received a check for £1.2 million, enough to endow a professorship in Lindsay's name.

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