This past week, The New York Times reported that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg would soon give a $350 million gift to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University. This hefty sum will round out a record-setting total of $1.1 billion in donations that Bloomberg has given to Hopkins since his graduation in 1964. But this is only a drop in bucket for Bloomberg’s upcoming charity projects. According to the Times, the mayor has pledged to give away his entire $25 billion dollar fortune before he dies.
Although the absolute sum of Bloomberg’s Hopkins donations is unprecedented, it calls to mind two other university megadonors, one recent and one from over a century ago. Together these men tell a story of industriousness and civic obligation that we would do well to internalize.
[media-credit id=14887 align=”alignleft” width=”224″][/media-credit]The first of these two titans of generosity was our own John William Sterling. Sterling’s death in 1918 left Yale with an unprecedented influx of cash. The $15 million estate he bequeathed to his alma mater would translate into approximately $200 million in today’s dollars. Sterling’s bequest dwarfed all previous gifts and provided the funds for prizes, professorships and some of Yale’s most impressive buildings.
Unlike Bloomberg’s self-made trajectory, Sterling was, without a doubt, a product of the old New England gentry. His father’s grandfather held a captain’s commission in the Revolutionary War and his maternal grandfather served as speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives. But the fabulous wealth he accrued over his lifetime was mostly of his own making. Graduating as valedictorian from Columbia Law School, Sterling eventually developed the “reputation for having mastered the business problems of more business interests than any other lawyer in this city,” according to the New York Times article reporting on his bequest.
Sterling died a bachelor, without a child to whom he could leave his $20 million estate. In his will, Sterling left a fraction of his total worth to his sisters and closest friend, and a slightly larger sum to a number of hospitals, but the vast majority of Sterling’s money went to Yale. Perhaps his giving would have diminished had Sterling had children, or perhaps like Bloomberg, he would have felt that his fortune ought be given out rather than passed on intact to an heir.
Regardless of counterfactuals, at least according to Yale’s then-Secretary Anson Phelps Stokes, Sterling’s entire professional career was aimed at Yale’s well-being. Indeed after Sterling died, Stokes recalled Sterling telling him, “I am working here night and day with one great object in mind: to make as much money as I honorably can to leave to Yale University,” while insisting that his intent be kept in “the strictest confidence, which I shall ask you to share with no one during my lifetime.”
Sterling’s humility, however, has recently been surpassed by another recent university alumnus megadonor: Cornell’s Charles Feeney. In 2011, Cornell joined with Israel’s Technion Institute in winning the opportunity to build a new high-tech engineering school on New York’s Roosevelt Island. It was able to do so largely on the strength of a $350 million gift from Feeney. This donation topped off more than $600 million in donations that Feeney had already given to Cornell anonymously over the previous decades.
By all accounts Feeney is a remarkable man. Despite the $600 million in previous gifts, none of the buildings on Cornell’s campus bear Feeney’s name. Reportedly, he owns neither a home nor a car, buys clothes off the rack and has flown coach for years. The public only learned of any of his charitable activities in 1997, when a legal dispute forced him to make many of his records public.
At a time when donors expect constant honor and accolades, the desired secrecy of Sterling and Feeney is as beautiful as it is unusual. In a world in which students expect a T-shirt and coffee for simply giving blood, we could do well remember men who tried to avoid even public knowledge of their gifts. And in an age where amassing and consolidating wealth seems to be the eleventh commandment, Bloomberg’s commitment to transferring his staggering fortune to charitable causes is a much-needed breath of fresh air.
A Yale diploma will help many of us make a lot of money. And to all of us, Yale has given the opportunity to discover our strengths and consider what matters. We owe a debt, both to the institution that gave us the opportunity and to all of those others that haven’t been so blessed. We would do well to give back.
Yishai Schwartz is a senior in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .