Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

The College Pump

Bunk, in Faded Gingham

September-October 2001

"Your wooden arm you hold outstretched to shake with passers-by."
Harvard's arrogance, and its just rewards, are the topics of the following story, which has circulated on the World Wide Web since at least 1998.

"It comes so naturally to us to judge people by their appearances: 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 and probably didn't even deserve to be in Cambridge. She frowned. '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 to do. 'Maybe if they just see you for a few minutes, they'll leave,' she told him. And 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 with dignity, strutted towards the couple.

Mrs. Leland Stanford
The lady in gingham, otherwise attired

Portrait courtesy of Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University; Stanford Family Collections

"The lady told him, 'We had a son that attended Harvard for one year. He loved Harvard. He was happy here. But about a year ago, he was accidentally killed. And 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 an earthly idea how much a building costs? We have over seven and a half million dollars in the physical plant at Harvard.'

"For a moment the lady was silent. The president was pleased. He could get rid of them now. And the lady turned to her husband and said quietly, 'Is that 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. And Mr. and Mrs. Leland Stanford 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."

From time to time, a Harvard person asks Primus forlornly whether this story is true. It's a canard. The editors of Stanford Magazine admitted that three years ago in a piece entitled "Truth and Lies at Harvard." "The account, of course, is wrong --and, in places, absurd," they wrote. "Leland Jr. died of typhoid fever at age 15. He never enrolled at Harvard. His parents did visit Harvard President Charles Eliot, but only to get advice on endowing a university. Perhaps most ridiculous is the notion that Sen. Stanford, a wealthy railroad baron, and his wife would show up in ratty clothes." Let there be an end to Harvardians wilting in confusion.

President Eliot, as large-minded a president as Harvard ever had, will be remembered for many initiatives, among them "The Harvard Classics," or "Dr. Eliot's Five-foot Shelf of Books," a 50-volume library of world classics that he began editing in 1909, near the end of his 40-year presidency. These books would "give any man the essentials of a liberal education, even if he can devote to them but 15 minutes a day." This magazine will soon publish an article about the principles animating Eliot's selections. Meantime, contributing editor Edward Tenner, Jf '72, who is at work on a technological and cultural history of the top hat, reports that while reading hatters' magazines he discovered that a merchandiser in New York City named Truly Warner, in response to Eliot's publishing venture, marketed a five-foot shelf of hats.

~Primus V