Date Added: Feb. 4, 2003
We revel in tales of pompous dimwits getting knocked off their high-horses by failing to see the good in those they consider less worthy. This 'true' story, however, is just a flight of fancy.
Subject: EDUCATED IGNORANCE
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 into the Harvard University President's outer office and asked for an appointment. 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 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. "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, but 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 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 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. "If that is 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.
Mr. and Mrs. Leland Stanford got up and 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.
You can easily judge the character of others by how they treat those who they think can do nothing for them or to them.
The theme of this story is common in urban legendry: Money and status often distance those who have them from reality - and for their ignorance, they are duly punished. Unfortunately, this tale is more fiction than truth.
The real story behind the origins of Stanford University is much less romantic.
Leland Stanford was a very wealthy and prominent businessman and politician. Though he and his wife did visit the president of Harvard before building their school, their visit was intended to gather advice for establishing a university, not to offer an endowment to Harvard. Their fact-finding tour also included Yale, Cornell and MIT. They ultimately decided to build a school on land they owned in Palo Alto, California.
The Stanfords did indeed lose a son, but he never attended Harvard. Leland Stanford, Jr. died of illness when he was 15. Stanford University was, indeed, founded in his name, but this was not to spite Harvard for rebuffing their offer of a memorial.
This missive was likely created as a bit of humor spawned by the long-running rivalry among ivy-league schools. Unfortunately, enough people have wanted it to be true that it has incorrectly taken on that label. Break this chain.