Universities are always looking for cash from their alumni (or anyone else with a big enough checkbook). But sometimes colleges are offered donations of another variety. Here are stories of six rather unusual gifts given to universities across the world.
Endowing a school, building, or even a classroom with one’s name is a pretty typical fundraising practice among universities today. Demanding a bathroom to commemorate yourself isn’t quite as commonplace. Brad Feld, a local venture capitalist, donated $25,000 to the University of Colorado on the condition that a plaque would be placed on the door of a second-floor men’s restroom in one of the campus’ technology centers. He originally made the conditional offer to his alma mater, MIT, but was rejected. Feld, in an interview with Boulder’s Daily Camera, states: “I just wanted a plaque outside of the men’s room to inspire people as they walk in to do their business.” Quite fittingly, the quote reads, “The best ideas often come at inconvenient times – don’t ever close your mind to them.”
With an $11.2 billion endowment and a current plan to raise an additional $1.75 billion, Princeton knows how to bring in cash. But Andrew Carnegie’s donation is a large liquid asset of a different type: a lake. Carnegie was a devoted philanthropist, founding libraries and universities in the United States and Scotland, and Princeton was eager to add their name to his list of lucky donors. While sitting for a portrait one day Carnegie regaled the artist, Howard Russel Butler, with tales of the lochs he had built in Scotland. Butler, an alumnus of Princeton University and its varsity crew team, described the crowded narrow canal that the team was practicing on and his plans to build an adjacent lake. Carnegie immediately took interest and undertook the project himself. At the dedication of Lake Carnegie, University president Woodrow Wilson (the future President of the United States) approached the donor, eager to involve Carnegie in funding new academic programs. Carnegie responded with disinterest, saying “I have already given you a lake.” Wilson’s reported response? “We needed bread, and you gave us cake.”
The donation that P. T. Barnum made in 1889 dwarfs the small peanuts being donated to the University by recent college graduates. The great circus entertainer P.T. Barnum was one of the earliest supporters of Tufts, and he donated many of his deceased circus specimens to Tufts’ Barnum Museum of Natural History, which he also contributed. Of all the exotic species he bestowed upon the college, his biggest (literally) and most impactful specimen donation was Jumbo the elephant. Barnum promised the skeleton of the 13-foot tall African elephant to the Museum of Natural History, and its hide to Tufts. Upon Jumbo’s death, he was mounted and sent to live at Tufts. The students immediately took to Jumbo, and he became the school’s mascot. However, tragedy struck in 1975 when Jumbo and the structure surrounding him, then known simply as Barnum Hall, was destroyed in a fire. Athletic administrators, desperate to keep a remnant of their beloved mascot, scooped up some of the ashes into a peanut butter jar which remains on the desk of the Tufts athletic director to this day.
Frances Crick (of DNA fame) had fundraising of a different type in mind for Cambridge University, intending to transition Churchill from leading the House of Commons to leading a house of ill repute. To honor former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Cambridge decided to build a new college in his honor in 1960. Crick was offered a fellowship in the college, and the fervent atheist accepted on the condition that a chapel never be constructed in the college, believing that religion had no place in a serious institution focused on science and technology. However, when funding for the construction of a chapel was offered by a donor, the college agreed to proceed. Crick protested to Churchill, who responded that “none need enter [the chapel] unless they wish.” Crick responded by saying that if that is the case, the college ought to build a brothel under the same grounds and even included a check for 10 guineas as his contribution towards such a business. Unfortunately for Cambridge students, Crick’s facetious proposal was not accepted and he resigned.
W. K. Kellogg, of cereal fame, was an avid fan of Arabian horses since his childhood. After starting his namesake company with his brother and earning millions of dollars, he purchased land in Pomona, California, to establish a world-class Arabian horse ranch. In 1932 he donated the ranch to the state of California, stipulating that the horses must be kept, along with the traditional Sunday horse shows to display the grace and versatility of the Arabian horse. When the property was transferred to the California State Polytechnic University at Pomona in 1949, the school agreed to uphold these terms. The Sunday shows continue today, performed by a student drill team on the first Sunday of each month, October through May.
While light saber wars between students are routine at universities like Cal Tech and MIT, the University of Calgary lays claim to one of the largest collections of sci-fi material in the galaxy. When devoted sci-fi collector Bob Gibson died in 2001, his family had no idea what to do with his 30,000 piece collection – the boxes of books and magazines took up most of the house. His son, an alumnus of the University of Calgary, decided that the collection would be best preserved and shared by donating it to his alma mater. Thus, with the establishment of the Bob Gibson Collection of Speculative Fiction, the University of Calgary instantly became the home of one of the world’s leading collections of science fiction.
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