Thursday, July 31, 2008

A faded gingham dress and a homespun threadbare suit

I’m not sure how many of you have heard Malcolm Forbes’s version of our university’s founding but it’s certainly new to me. A little lengthy, it goes like this (taken from

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 Harvard University President’s outer office. The secretary could tell in a moment that such backwoods, country hicks had no business at Harvard & probably didn’t even deserve to be in Cambridge.
“We’d like 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, and 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, “Is that all it cost 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, Stanford University, 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. —-
A TRUE STORY By Malcolm Forbes.

Of course, with the not-so-light summer reading on Stanford’s history that we’ve been given, we should easily recognize this story as a myth, merely demonstrative of the arrogance of one Ivy League school. Consequently, I was a bit surprised to see the rather serious efforts that Stanford makes to dispel this myth on the school website—there’s a full section under “Stanford University History” devoted to it, which clarifies Leland Stanford Jr. having never attended Harvard nor ever being “accidentally killed.”

Looking into the popularity of this legend, I found that many websites note its truth, which has sparked other websites to assist in dispelling the myth. Apparently the tale first made its appearance on the Internet in 1998 as a story to warn against making appearance-based judgements, rather than as a factual account of Stanford’s founding. Also, the story is attributed to Malcolm Forbes, founder and publisher of Forbes magazine, who died in 1990. According to one site, “Obviously, the hoaxer was seeking to authenticate the fabricated tale by putting a well-known person’s name as the author.”

How interesting that a “don’t judge a book by its cover” story would implicate the “misfortunes” of our own university founders!


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