Stanford University History – Gingham Dress


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 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 will be busy all day,” the secretary snapped.

“We will 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 e xclaimed, “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

I hope to keep this in mind whenever I start to judge.



This story isn’t true. It’s a great feel good story but it’s made up. I get so many intriguing stories forwarded to me each week via email and it’s VERY rare they are true when they say “TRUE STORY” or “FORWARD THIS TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW”.

There’s usually an element of truth in it, that’s what makes a good urban legend. How do you check up on things like this? Well….there’s a thing called the internet, and a thing called Google. Copy part of the main text of the story in question and you’ll get search results. If that doesn’t work add the word “urban”, “legend” or “hoax” and you’ll find sites documenting it’s authenticity.

It took me about ten seconds to find two websites documenting the hoax, and another five seconds for a rebuttal from the Stanford University website – found on a search of “Stanford University History”. Please check your stories out before you bombard your friends.

URL of this article on Stanford Website

You may have heard a story that a lady in “faded gingham” (Jane Stanford) and a man dressed in a “homespun threadbare suit” (Leland Stanford) went to visit the president of Harvard, were rebuffed, and as a result, went on to found their own university in Palo Alto. This untrue story is an urban myth, and Stanford’s archivist has prepared a response for those desiring more information:

For what it is worth, there was a book written by the then Harvard president’s son that may have started the twist on actual events.

Leland Stanford Junior was just short of his 16th birthday when he died of typhoid fever in Florence, Italy on March 13, 1884. He had not spent a year at Harvard before his death, nor was he “accidentally killed.” Following Leland Junior’s death, the Stanfords determined to found an institution in his name that would serve the “children of California.”

Detained on the East Coast following their return from Europe, the Stanfords visited a number of universities and consulted with the presidents of each. The account of their visit with Charles W. Eliot at Harvard is actually recounted by Eliot himself in a letter sent to David Starr Jordan (Stanford’s first president) in 1919. At the point the Stanfords met with Eliot, they apparently had not yet decided about whether to establish a university, a technical school or a museum. Eliot recommended a university and told them the endowment should be $5 million. Accepted accounts indicate that Jane and Leland looked at each other and agreed they could manage that amount.

The thought of Leland and Jane, by this time quite wealthy, arriving at Harvard in a faded gingham dress and homespun threadbare suit is quite entertaining. And, as a former governor of California and well-known railroad baron, they likely were not knowingly kept waiting for too long outside Eliot’s office. The Stanfords also visited Cornell, MIT and Johns Hopkins.

The Stanfords established two institutions in Leland Junior’s name — the University and the Museum, which was originally planned for San Francisco, but moved to adjoin the university.

One thought on “Stanford University History – Gingham Dress

  1. Just a little background to the story:

    The Stanfords had travelled to Turkey (actually the Ottoman Empire at that time) by the invitation of Sultan Abdulhamid II. who wanted the construction of Hejaz railway connecting Istanbul-Damasqus-Amman and Medina, and Leland Stanford Sr. being a prominent railroad magnate, was consulted, maybe even offered the rights to the project. His son probably caught the typhoid fever in Istanbul. And sadly passed away on the trip back.

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