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8.04.2010

11 Eleemosynary Ezra

"We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give." Sir Winston Churchill

My unscientific study concludes that the most common word in The New York Times obituaries is "philanthropist" as in "Brooke Astor, 105, First Lady of Philanthropy, Dies", "Evelyn Haas, Philanthropist, Dies at 92", "Fenmore Seton – Philanthropist, 85." More often than not the "P-word" follows another career as in "Computer Magnate and Philanthropist Max Palevsky", "Banker and Philanthropist", "Publisher and Philanthropist." Rarely (sadly), "Pro Athlete and Philanthropist."

For Ezra Cornell's obituary, the word "philanthropist" should come first. I believe it did in his mind. Yeah, he started a university for $500,000 – actually a total of $669,555 when you include two farms, $25,000 to NY State, the barn, library collections and equipment (see M Whalen Gifts and Giving 2003) – equivalent of about $40 million today). But he also gave Ithaca its first library in 1864. Andy Carnegie got the bug eighteen years later in 1883.

While Ezra's success in making money (often despite himself) is a huge chunk of his reputation, altruism is his greatest legacy. He woke up on October 10, 1871 unable to telegraph Chicago. The city had burned to the ground (a week after his overnight stay in the city during a return from inspecting the Wisconsin forests). Two hundred miles east of Cornell's pines, the same fire ravaged about 2,400 square miles or 1.5 million acres in Wisconsin and Upper Michigan.

His immediate response was a gift of $1,000 (about $60,000 today) to help Chicago.

And Ezra inspired others to give to the university: lumberman Henry Sage; lumberman John McGraw and daughter Jennie; Hiram Sibley and Junior; President AD White; Daniel B. Fayerweather; Frederick W. Guiteau; faculty members Goldwin Smith and Daniel Fiske; and of course, Rockefeller and Carnegie.

And in 1874 the first endowed chair at Cornell was the professorship of Hebrew and Oriental Literature and History (thinking of you, Dad), proposed and funded by the NYC financier Joseph Seligman – six years after Cornell opened its campus to students!

Menahem Mansoor 1911-2001
Happy Birthday Dad! Retiring as emeritus professor and chairman of the department of Hebrew and Semitic Studies at the University of Wisconsin, he died at 90 a month after 9/11 and a month after meeting his youngest granddaughter for the first time. He would have liked this blog and in particular this posting. He would have liked that Mr. Seligman gave Cornell's first professorship in his field,... and Dad liked quotations.

"You give but little when you give of your possessions.  It is when you give of yourself that you truly give." Gibran, Kahlil (1883-1931) Syrian-American poet.

Ezra did both.

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