What a wonderful world this would be if we would all get to know a person first before judging them on looks, ability, or stature.
The President of Harvard made a mistake by prejudging people and it cost him dearly…
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 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. She frowned.
“We want 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 to do. “Maybe if they just see you for a few minutes, they’ll leave,” she told him.
And he sighed in exasperation and nodded. Someone of his importance obviously didn’t have the time to spend with them, but he detested gingham dresses and homespun suits cluttering up his outer office. The president, stern-faced with dignity, strutted toward the couple.
The lady told him, “We had a son that attended Harvard for one year. He loved Harvard. He was happy here. But about a year ago, he was accidentally killed. And 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 lady 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 plant at Harvard.”
For a moment the lady was silent. The president was pleased. He could get rid of them now. And the lady turned to her husband and said quietly, “Is that all it costs to start a University? Why don’t we just start our own?”
Her husband nodded. The president’s face wilted in confusion and bewilderment.
And Mr. and Mrs. Leland Stanford walked away, traveling to Palo Alto, California where they established the University that bears their name, a memorial to a son that Harvard no longer cared about.
When I first read this story, I thought that it was true. But the Stanford web site says the story is false. So even though the story is good it is not true. This is the explanation given at the web site.
You may have heard a story that a lady in “faded gingham” (Jane Stanford) and a man dressed in a “homespun threadbare suit” (Leland Stanford) went to visit the president of Harvard, were rebuffed, and as a result, went on to found their own university in Palo Alto. This untrue story is an urban myth, and Stanford’s archivist has prepared a response for those desiring more information:
For what it is worth, there was a book written by the then Harvard president’s son that may have started the twist on actual events.
Leland Stanford Junior was just short of his 16th birthday when he died of typhoid fever in Florence, Italy on March 13, 1884. He had not spent a year at Harvard before his death, nor was he “accidentally killed.” Following Leland Junior’s death, the Stanfords determined to found an institution in his name that would serve the “children of California.”
Detained on the East Coast following their return from Europe, the Stanfords visited a number of universities and consulted with the presidents of each. The account of their visit with Charles W. Eliot at Harvard is actually recounted by Eliot himself in a letter sent to David Starr Jordan (Stanford’s first president) in 1919. At the point the Stanfords met with Eliot, they apparently had not yet decided about whether to establish a university, a technical school or a museum. Eliot recommended a university and told them the endowment should be $5 million. Accepted accounts indicate that Jane and Leland looked at each other and agreed they could manage that amount.
The thought of Leland and Jane, by this time quite wealthy, arriving at Harvard in a faded gingham dress and homespun threadbare suit is quite entertaining. And, as a former governor of California and well-known railroad baron, they likely were not knowingly kept waiting for too long outside Eliot’s office. The Stanfords also visited Cornell, MIT and Johns Hopkins.
The Stanfords established two institutions in Leland Junior’s name — the University and the Museum, which was originally planned for San Francisco, but moved to adjoin the university.