10 Historical Figures Who Gave Back and the Universities they Founded in the United States

10 Historical Figures Who Gave Back and the Universities they Founded in the United States

Larry Holzwarth - July 30, 2018

The United States is liberally dotted with colleges and universities founded by men and women who made their fortunes there, some of them through less than savory means. Other schools, Duke University for example, were renamed out of respect for major benefactors. In the case of Duke, one of the nation’s leading cancer research centers is somewhat ironically situated at a university liberally endowed from a fortune derived largely from tobacco.

The men and women who opted to create institutions of higher learning did so for differing reasons, including religious, political, and societal motivations. The fortunes used to create the endowments for them were made in equally diverse ways. All of the schools listed here were not only endowed by their founders, but found their personality enmeshed in their philosophy of education. Some remain highly specialized, and all of them are highly selective as regards admissions. They are examples of the desire to build a better America long into the future.

10 Historical Figures Who Gave Back and the Universities they Founded in the United States
A statue of Washington Duke on the campus of Duke University. Wikimedia

Here are ten of America’s colleges and universities and the stories of the men and women who founded them.

10 Historical Figures Who Gave Back and the Universities they Founded in the United States
Entrepreneur and stock market master Roger Babson, founder of Babson University. Library of Congress

Babson College, Wellesley, Massachusetts

Babson College is known as the Entrepreneurs College, and for good reason. It requires first year students to enroll in a course in which they start, operate, and dissolve a business. The entrepreneurial habit is ingrained in all students through immersion in its lifestyle and potential pitfalls. Babson College is highly regarded among academics and its Masters in Business Administration program is consistently ranked number one in the nation.

It was founded in 1919 by Roger Babson, who wasn’t satisfied with starting just one college. He founded three; Babson College, Webber College in Babson Park, Florida (now Webber International University) and Utopia College in Kansas (now closed). Babson was trained in engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where his persistent efforts to include business courses as a part of the engineering curriculum led to the forerunner of the MBA degree.

His fortune was made in the stock market, where he was astute enough to foresee the collapse of the market in 1929. Babson was the author of books describing social and economic problems of the time, eventually publishing more than forty. In 1940 he ran for President of the United States at the head of the Prohibition Party ticket, though his campaign was unsuccessful. President Franklin Roosevelt won his historic third term that year.

Though his fortune was made in trading on the stock market and providing investment counseling to others, Babson also dabbled in inventing, obtaining several patents for a type of parking meter which used the battery of the parked car for its operating power. The invention failed to draw interest from urban authorities. Babson also used his fortune to provide employment for stonemasons and carvers during the Great Depression.

The abandoned community known as Dogtown in Gloucester contained numerous boulders around its former common, and Babson hired unemployed masons to carve inspirational sayings on them, which varied from Help Mother to Keep Out of Debt. The stones became known as Babson’s Boulders and are today part of a recreation area for hikers, bikers, cross country skiers, and picnickers.

10 Historical Figures Who Gave Back and the Universities they Founded in the United States
Bradley University’s Bradley Hall, used as a dormitory. Wikimedia

Bradley University, Peoria, Illinois

In 1892 the Parsons Horological School, the first in America established to train watchmakers, was acquired by Lydia Moss Bradley and relocated to Peoria. In November 1896 Mrs. Bradley chartered the Bradley Polytechnic Institute, merging the horological program with liberal arts and other subjects, including home economics. The following October classes began in the school’s two still uncompleted buildings.

Bradley’s was born in 1816 in Vevay, Indiana. In 1837 she married Tobias Bradley and a decade later she, her husband, and their children moved to Peoria, where Tobias was a successful entrepreneur and banking executive, profitably acquiring real estate around the growing area. Lydia and Tobias had six children together, all of whom died of various frontier illnesses.

Tobias and Lydia frequently discussed creating an orphanage in Peoria, in memory of their lost children, and Tobias often discussed the creation of a school in the town. In 1867 he died in a carriage accident, leaving Lydia a childless widow. He left an estate of nearly half a million dollars, including stock in the First National Bank of Peoria, which he had founded and served as its president. Mrs. Bradley joined the bank’s board of directors in 1875.

Mrs. Bradley managed rental properties and other investments, doubling her fortune by 1885 when she hired a business manager. Within a decade it had doubled again, through land reclamation and other projects. She used her fortune to create in Peoria a Children’s Home, built a Universalist Church, and financed the construction of a home for elderly women with no family to care for them. She also donated land to the Society of Saint Francis on which they built a hospital.

Mrs. Bradley accomplished all of this philanthropy, as well as much more, at a time when women weren’t allowed to vote, and few colleges were co-educational. The school she founded, which became Bradley University in 1920, was open to both men and women. She died in January 1908 following a brief illness during which she was confined to her home. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1998, and is honored by a statue of her on Founder’s Circle at Bradley University.

10 Historical Figures Who Gave Back and the Universities they Founded in the United States
Cooper Union in 1893, in the heart of New York City. Wikimedia

Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, New York City

Peter Cooper was an inventor and industrialist, for a time operating a glue factory in New York near Kips Bay in Manhattan. In the late 1820s he began to invest in Maryland property, based on his faith in the new Baltimore and Ohio railroad. When iron ore was discovered on land he owned he opened the Canton Iron Company in Baltimore. It was Cooper who developed the Tom Thumb steam locomotive, which created the early success of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

Another glue factory in Gowanda and a number of patents for his inventions added to Cooper’s fortune. Some of these patents were involved in the manufacture and packaging of gelatin, which he sold to a patent medicine manufacturer. The patented process was used to develop a product in 1897 which was called Jell-O. Despite his steadily growing wealth, Cooper lived frugally and simply in New York City, from which he managed his affairs.

In the 1850s Cooper became involved with the telegraph industry, helping form the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company, supervising the Atlantic cable project, and forming the American Telegraph Company, which quickly bought out existing smaller companies and consolidated the industry in the east. He also became involved in New York politics and was a proponent of the anti-slavery movement.

The Public School Society was a private organization in New York City which operated the city’s free schools, using money from the city. Cooper was its head in 1848 when it began offering evening classes. Cooper decided to open a school which offered free adult education in mechanics, science, and the arts to better prepare adults of both sexes for business success. In 1859 Cooper Union opened after Cooper spent $600,000 of his own money building its Great Hall.

Cooper Union until 2014 offered a full tuition scholarship to all admitted students. Since that time it has offered scholarships on a sliding scale as it studied ways to return to the financial condition which would allow it to return to full scholarships for all. It has historically been one of the most selective colleges in the United States, admitting less than ten percent of applicants. Peter Cooper endowed the Cooper Union with the majority of his wealth.

10 Historical Figures Who Gave Back and the Universities they Founded in the United States
A depiction of the campus of Cornell University, drawn circa 1900. Wikimedia

Cornell University, Ithaca, New York

When Ezra Cornell was working as a plow salesman in the 1830s, the young Ithaca resident was assigned the states of Georgia and Maine as his territories. Cornell made the decision to travel to Maine in the summers and Georgia in winter. In 1842 he discovered that the telegraph industry needed a new type of plow to enable them to bury telegraph lines below ground, shielded in lead pipes. Cornell designed a suitable plow, but condensation damaged the underground lines, and they were soon being strung overhead.

It was Cornell who hit upon the idea of installing insulators made of glass to the poles, protecting the wire from shorting to ground. Cornell supervised the construction of numerous lines, receiving compensation in the form of salary and company stock. When smaller companies began to consolidate Cornell realized handsome profits from the stock. When one company in which he held interest merged with another to form Western Union Cornell received $2 million in stock in the new company.

One of the great achievements of the Lincoln administration overshadowed by the Civil War was the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act of 1862. The act awarded federal lands to the states for the purpose of establishing colleges, with 30,000 acres awarded for each member of Congress as of the 1860 census. For example, a state with four members received 120,000 acres. Cornell, who had always been keenly interested in education, retired from Western Union and focused his fortune and time on a new university.

After endowing the Cornell Library in Ithaca, Cornell partnered with Andrew Dickson White to obtain a charter for a new school with the status of New York’s land grant college. The charter was obtained in 1865 and Cornell University was born. Under the act states lacking sufficient federal land were allowed to claim lands in states which had an excess. Cornell personally owned vast lands in which he had invested in the upper Midwest, which were transferred to Cornell University.

Ezra Cornell provided his Ithaca farm for the site of the first campus, and $500,000 to begin construction. In 1868 its first classes began on the site. He continued to maintain the lands in the west owned by the University, which when finally sold realized an endowment for the school of $5 million (nearly $105 million today). Cornell is buried at the Sage Chapel at the main Cornell campus in Ithaca.

10 Historical Figures Who Gave Back and the Universities they Founded in the United States
The Drexel Institute circa 1897. Today it is known as Philadelphia’s Drexel University. Wikimedia

Drexel University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Anthony J. Drexel was a banker from the age of thirteen. Born in Philadelphia in 1826, he began learning the rudiments of banking at the firm started by his father. At the age of 21 he was named a member of the firm, Drexel & Company, which became successful with offices in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago by the time of the Civil War. When his father died in 1863 Drexel closed the offices in the west and changed the name of the New York branch to Drexel Winthrop.

In 1871 Drexel, while retaining his other interests, joined in a new partnership with John Pierpont Morgan, which was named Drexel, Morgan & Co. Based in New York, the merchant’s bank became one of the most powerful in the country during the boom years of the railroads. During the fiscal crisis of 1877, Drexel Morgan underwrote the US Army’s entire payroll when a panicked Congress failed to do so, helping to restore confidence in the economy.

With the dizzying advance of technology in the decades following the Civil War, Drexel, who was involved in the financing of emerging new industries, recognized the need to improve the manner in which young adults were prepared to take their part in business. Drexel came to believe that working experience was an integral part of preparing to enter business, and that the education process should include practical hands-on experience.

What later became known as co-operative education, in which work in a field related to an academic major is awarded credit, was Drexel’s vision. In 1891 Drexel endowed the Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry with $3 million of his personal fortune (about $80 million today). Drexel’s new school was open to all regardless of race, religious beliefs, or gender, a considerable innovation for the time.

In 1919, long after its founder died in 1893, Drexel Institute formalized the process of recognizing co-operative education, and Drexel’s personal belief in education through experience, which began when he learned banking beginning at the age of thirteen, remained a focus of the institution of higher learning he founded. Drexel became the Drexel Institute of Technology in 1936, changing its name to Drexel University in 1970.

10 Historical Figures Who Gave Back and the Universities they Founded in the United States
A Matthew Brady photograph of Amos Kendall, whose leadership helped create the world’s first university for the hearing impaired. National Archives

Gallaudet University, Washington DC

Gallaudet was founded in 1864 as a grammar school for blind and deaf children by Amos Kendall, an American lawyer and journalist who rose to national prominence through the newspaper he published in Frankfort, Kentucky. He strongly supported Andrew Jackson’s candidacy for the presidency, for which he was rewarded with the post of Postmaster General, a position through which he controlled all of the postmaster positions in the country.

Kendall made a fortune in publishing and lost it through downturns in the economy and a series of lawsuits against him by postal contractors which had lost money when he tried to eliminate corruption in the postal system while serving as postmaster general, and he returned to the practice of law. The lands he owned in Kentucky lost value, and his Washington DC law practice did not generate sufficient income for him to pay the taxes on them.

When Kendall was offered a position as business manager by Samuel Morse in a new telegraph company in 1845 he accepted, receiving a commission of 10% on patent licenses he successfully obtained. Using the commissions he started the Magnetic Telegraph Company, operating a line between Washington and New York, the nation’s first privately held telegraph line, and when he sold it to the American Telegraph Company in 1859 his wealth was restored.

In 1857, after deaf and blind children under the care of Platt Skinner were removed from his custody under accusations of abuse, Kendall donated his home and two acres of the farmland around it and established the Kendall School. He hired the innovative teacher of the disabled Edward Miner Gallaudet to run the school, and Kendall placed himself as the president of the board of directors. Within a short time he was lobbied for more advanced education for the deaf and blind.

Kendall worked with Congress and in 1864 Congress enacted legislation creating the National Deaf-Mute College. The following year Congress authorized the purchase of fourteen acres of Kendall’s farm, Kendall Green, for the construction of the college. It was Kendall who changed the name of the college to Gallaudet College, which later became Gallaudet University. It was the first academic institution dedicated to the deaf and near deaf in the world.

10 Historical Figures Who Gave Back and the Universities they Founded in the United States
R. G. LeTourneau made a fortune manufacturing heavy earth moving vehicle like these before founding LeTourneau University in Texas. US Army

LeTourneau University, Longview, Texas

Robert LeTourneau was an American industrialist who worked as an ironmonger’s apprentice, learned welding, studied mechanics and automobile repair through correspondence courses, and eventually gained experience as a carpenter, brick layer, miner, and in several other trades. In 1911 he opened the Superior Garage in Stockton California to both sell and service automobiles. Following its failure and World War One, he moved into manufacturing.

In 1921, LeTourneau established a company which both manufactured earthmoving machinery and contracted for work using the equipment. The company grew steadily and by World War Two LeTourneau had manufacturing plants in several states and in New South Wales, Australia. The war offered new opportunities for LeTourneau’s company, as the Allied armies and the Navy’s Seabee battalions needed earth moving equipment.

More than two thirds of the heavy earth moving equipment and other engineering machines procured by the United States and Allied forces during the Second World War were supplied by LeTourneau. When the GI Bill of Rights was announced during the war, which provided educational benefits for returning veterans, LeTourneau saw another opportunity on the horizon. A devout Christian, he envisioned a Christian college for the education of the returning veterans.

LeTourneau was well known as a philanthropist who supported Christian causes and institutions throughout his successful career. In 1946, along with his wife and the support of local businessmen and community leaders, he established the Letourneau Technical Institute, which was chartered by the State of Texas in February 1946. In the beginning the Institute was part of LeTourneau’s company and admission was limited to men, nearly all of them veterans.

LeTourneau Technical Institute grew steadily, offering programs in which students acquired practical experience working in the nearby LeTourneau plant, and fueled by the GI Bill. In 1961 the school became Letourneau College and co-educational. In 1989 the college became LeTourneau University. During the late twentieth century and early twenty first, the school offered off-campus classes and online class programs for eligible students. Robert Letourneau died in 1969.

10 Historical Figures Who Gave Back and the Universities they Founded in the United States
George Pepperdine’s fortune came from Western Auto Stores like this one in Benton, Kentucky. National Archives

Pepperdine University, Los Angeles County, California

George Pepperdine was born to parents who had undergone a religious conversion during a tent revival near Parson’s Kansas. He was accordingly raised in the Church of Christ, and was a devout Christian in his own right. Pepperdine studied business at Parsons Business College, a school which went bankrupt in 1973 and closed. Pepperdine began his career as a businessman at the age of 23, when he and a partner named Don Abnor Davis founded the Western Auto Supply Company.

Western Auto began as a mail order company selling parts for the rapidly growing automobile market. It grew with increasing speed; eventually the company operated 1,200 stores across the United States, and franchised another 4,000 smaller stores which featured its products. It developed its own product lines, including Western Flyer bicycles and Citation appliances, though it did not manufacture them, having them built by reputable manufacturers such as Frigidaire in the case of the appliances.

In 1930 Pepperdine’s wife died of parrot fever, contracted when she handled a pair of birds while on a vacation trip in South America. After her death Pepperdine began to grow away from the business, in part because his wife, Lena, had been an active partner in it, involved in nearly all of the decisions which had led to its success. In 1939 he decided to sell his portion of the business and retire to a life of philanthropy.

Pepperdine gave away money to build several YMCAs and Boy’s Clubs in southern California and supported the Boy Scouts by acquiring properties and donating them for the organization’s use. He remarried and his second wife joined him in charitable works. In 1937, in response to solicitations from his friend Hugh Tiner, he began the work which led to the organization and chartering of the southern California university which bears his name, establishing it as a Christian school.

Pepperdine University was opened as Pepperdine College in September 1937, with George Pepperdine speaking to the first class of students. “We want to present to you, in teaching and example, the Christian way of life,” he said. “We do not compel you to accept it,” he continued, “You are free to make your own choice, but we want you to know what it is.” He remained heavily involved with the school and its development for the rest of his life, dying in 1962.

10 Historical Figures Who Gave Back and the Universities they Founded in the United States
Thomas Jefferson’s design of the Rotunda on the campus of the University of Virginia. He had no formal training in architecture nor design. Library of Congress

The University of Virginia

When Thomas Jefferson wrote what he wanted to appear on his tombstone, he included the words, “Father of the University of Virginia”. Jefferson did far more than found the university in Charlottesville. He designed its campus and supervised its construction. He designed the rotunda and the initial student housing, the buildings of the school and the layout of the lawn. He even took a hand in the landscaping, and from his house at nearby Monticello he watched as the results unfolded below.

Jefferson designed much of the curriculum for the first year students and established innovations in education for its day, offering eight separate schools at the new university; ancient languages, modern languages, law, mathematics, medicine, moral philosophy, natural philosophy, and chemistry. Divinity was notably absent, and Jefferson was insistent that it remain so. He also established two levels of degrees. A Graduate was one who successfully completed a course of study at one of the eight schools while a Doctor was one who completed the course of two or more of the schools.

Jefferson was not the only former president involved in the formation of the university, James Madison served as its second rector and James Monroe was on the school’s board of visitors while he was still in the White House. But no other person had as much influence on the founding of the university than Jefferson, motivated in no small amount by the deterioration in the quality of the education to be had at Virginia’s then extant other college, the College of William and Mary.

By 1817, when the decision to build the University of Virginia was arrived at, Jefferson had become openly contemptuous of William and Mary, which was his own alma mater. Jefferson believed that the quality of the teaching there had deteriorated with the loss of teachers such as George Wythe, under whom he had studied in his own time at the college. He also found William and Mary’s curriculum and philosophy to be dominated by the Anglican religion, formerly the official religion of Virginia.

After the first class was admitted in 1825, Jefferson continued his efforts to improve the school and the lives of the students, addressing them in the Rotunda, which served as a library, and in dinners and picnics at his Monticello home. Virginia opened an engineering school a decade after Jefferson’s death, making it the first university in the United States to have an engineering school. His influence on the school waned over time, but is still visible in its central lawn and what he called his “Academic Village”.

10 Historical Figures Who Gave Back and the Universities they Founded in the United States
University Hall on the campus of Purdue University, named for benefactor John Purdue. Wikimedia

Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana

After serving an apprenticeship to an Ohio merchant and working as a schoolteacher for several years, John Purdue opened a business selling farm products in Ohio. In 1833 he opened a general store in Adelphi, and the following year he purchased land in Indiana. At that time he already owned substantial land holdings in Ohio, which he paid for through the exchange of products from his store. In 1839 he and his partner, Moses Fowler, sold their holdings in Ohio and relocated to Indiana.

Settling in Lafayette, Fowler and Purdue opened a dry goods business which thrived. In 1844 the partners separated and Purdue moved into other businesses, maintaining his dry goods business, which produced enormous profits during the Civil War, providing needed materials to the Union Army. Purdue developed extensive business contacts in New York during the decade which preceded the war, and these helped him obtain army contracts.

Purdue University was founded following the passage of the Morrill Act, which led Tippecanoe County to bid for the contract for the land grant. Several prominent citizens of the area provided donations including Purdue, who offered $100,000 at first, and when the legislature failed to act, raised his donation to $150,000 and included 100 acres of his land. He also was involved in the negotiations to create a board of trustees to select the site of the school.

In May 1869, the Indiana state legislature established the site of the university, and established its name as Purdue University, in honor of its lead benefactor. Classes at the new university began in 1874, and the school awarded its first degree, a bachelor of science in chemistry, the following year. The school became co-educational in the fall of 1875. Emerson White became the school’s president in 1876, determined to make the school focused on science, technology, and agriculture, in the spirit of the Morrill Act.

John Purdue died in September 1876, on the first day of class for the incoming third class at Purdue University. He died without heirs, causing his estate to be long entangled in probate court. Purdue University grew from a small school with six instructors and 39 students to one which offers more than 200 collegiate majors, with its student body expanding to become the second largest of colleges and universities in the State of Indiana.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“100 Hundred Minds that Made the Market”, by Ken Fisher, 2007

“Lydia Moss Bradley”, Wikipedia.

“Peter Cooper”, by Raymond Rossiter, 1901

“The Wisconsin Pine Lands of Cornell University”, by Paul Wallace Gates, 2011

“The Man Who Made Wall Street: Anthony J. Drexel and the Rise of Modern Finance”, by Dan Rottenberg, 2001

“The Autobiography of Amos Kendall”, by Amos Kendall, 1872, at Project Guttenberg

“Mover of Men and Mountains”, by R. G. LeTourneau, 1967

“Faith is My Fortune: A Life Story of George Pepperdine”, by George Pepperdine, 1959

“Mr. Jefferson’s University: A History”, by Virginius Dabney, 1981

“The Midas of the Wabash: A Biography of John Purdue”, by Robert C. Kriebel, 2002