Mercy College 100th Anniversary Celebration

February 22, 2018

Mercy College


Thank you.  It is a deep honor to be asked to be here with you this evening as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Mercy College. 

It is a bit of a homecoming of sorts for me with so many friends and colleagues in the room.

It is great to see Defiance College represented here – President Richanne Mankey, Lois McCullough, John Troutman and so many others – I have a big soft spot for DC and words cannot describe adequately what that college means to my family and me.

My bio doesn’t say anything about my family. However, there is a man in this room who is like a brother to me. He was the best man in my wedding and the Godfather of our oldest son, and that man is Eric Stockard. 

And of course, there is President Sue Wajert, who I have known for more than 30 years. Sue and I met at the College of Mt. St. Joseph back in the late 1980s. At that time and then when she was a faculty member at Defiance College, Sue was a celebrated faculty member. More importantly, she was and remains a gifted leader and a woman of the highest integrity.

So, when she called and asked me to speak at the 100th anniversary celebration, I said, “Sure, anything for you Sue.” She said, “Great. Mark your calendar for February 21 in Toledo.” 

Did I hear her right? February 21 in Toledo? Even though I am from this part of the world, my new home is in San Diego, where I wear a sweater when it gets down to 60 degrees. But I had a legitimate excuse to not accept: “Gee I want to do it, but I teach that night.”  As a teacher first, I knew she would accept that as a good reason to miss.  She replied, “No problem, we will make it the 22nd.”  So, here I am, freezing cold, but feeling very warm about being with you tonight. 

As I mentioned earlier, this feels like a homecoming, and I remember my first homecoming as a college president. What I learned that day was that a president must do what is asked of him/her. Tonight, my job is to discuss the importance of philanthropy in higher education, and how philanthropy, and more specifically your giving, can help ensure Mercy college celebrates its 200th anniversary in February of 2118.

Let’s begin in Cambridge MA, where the first act of philanthropy to higher education in America occurred in 1636 when a minister named John Harvard died and left one-half of his estate and all of his books to a young fledgling college created only two years before. The value of that estate was 740 pounds. Why did the colony of Massachusetts and John Harvard think it was important to create and fund Harvard? 

We can find a clear answer for that question in a publication called “New England’s First Fruits” published in 1643. In this pamphlet, the writers described the four foundational building blocks for creating a new colony.

First, they built shelter to dwell in. Second, they built a church (Congregational) to worship in.

Third, they established a government to create the rule of law. And finally, the wished to: "advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity.” To accomplish this, they created what is now known as Harvard. 

In other words, they recognized almost 400 years ago what some people are forgetting today.

A robust and functioning democracy needs higher education to prepare people to serve and lead in society. The grand purpose of Harvard was not to provide a place for personal gain. It was clear from the beginning. Investing in higher education was both good for society and perpetuating values into the future. And it all started with one gift from a poor preacher named John Harvard.

It would be more than 150 years later that the first Catholic college in the United States—Georgetown—would be founded.

Then, more than 130 years later in 1918, the Sisters of Mercy founded what we celebrate tonight: Mercy College.

At that time, the country had just finished fighting WWI, and in Toledo, the community was fighting off an epidemic with the Spanish flu that killed thousands across the country. The Sisters of Mercy knew that there would be a continuing need for trained nurses in this region— people who would help advance the health and welfare of society.

But more importantly, they too, wanted to “advance learning” and also “perpetuate their values into prosperity.”

Values found in the Catholic Intellectual tradition: Academic Excellence, Compassion, Justice, Service, Respect for Human Dignity, and the Sacredness of Life.

Of course, just like the founders of Harvard, the Sisters had no idea that the college of nursing they established would someday be expanded to offer degrees in myriad health sciences and have campuses in three different cities. 

Such has been the case for higher education throughout history. In 1862, in the middle of the civil war, Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Land Grant Act, establishing Land Grant Colleges across the country–including Ohio State—to help the country address the need for more advanced training in agricultural and mechanical sciences.

It is worth noting that most of the original land grant institutions were built on lands that had been donated by land owners who had a strong belief that by giving one gift of a parcel of land, they would be impacting generations of students and advancing society. 

While we are all familiar with these and other actions taken by the government, what is equally important—if not more important—is the role of philanthropy in advancing society by funding higher education.

For example, at the turn of the 20th century, the great industrialist, Andrew Carnegie, decided to turn his attention to philanthropy, and he made one gift to help establish a library in Pittsburgh to support the education of the entire community.

He was so pleased with the impact of the library on the community that he continued to give. By the time of his death, he had given away the equivalent today of $76 billion.

His philanthropy focused on creating more than 3,000 libraries across the country, many on college campuses.  He also funded research, science and peace initiatives, and of course created what is today, Carnegie Mellon University. His impact on the world and the advancement of education is remarkable.

It all began because of one gift.

But, it wasn’t only the wealthy who changed the world through their giving. Thousands of other gifts to higher education had significant impact as well. One story is right here from northwest Ohio, when a local banker in 1904 decided to create a scholarship fund at a local college. His gift was $500, and he would never know how impactful his giving truly was. 

That scholarship fund was for students who were unable to pay for college. In 1934, a young man from Deshler, Ohio, enrolled in the college and when he graduated, he went on to work in the glass industry in Toledo. After he made some money off his early patents, he gave back to the college that had given him a scholarship from the banker. In 1904, and with his wife, they established their own scholarship fund that today has provided funding for thousands of young people to complete a college degree. By the time of his death in 2003, he had more than 100 patents to his name, and Life Fortune Magazine named him a “glass genius” and called him “the grandfather of solar energy.”

Of course, many of you know who I am talking about–Harold McMaster. However, establishing a scholarship fund at his alma mater, Defiance College, was not all he and his wife Helen did. They went one-step further and providing the funding for a new school at DC—The McMaster School for Advancing Humanity. At the time, it was the largest gift ever given to an institution of higher learning in northwestern Ohio. 

The McMaster School promotes the exchange of ideas across the globe and has provided incredible learning experiences for hundreds of students.

Think about it. One $500 gift made in 1904 by a local banker helped take a young man off a farm and provide him with an education that later would help create the field of solar energy, relieving suffering and misery around the world through clean energy.

One gift.

One small gift, given to Tennessee State University in the 1960s by the local Elk’s Club, helped establish a speech contest where the winner would receive a college scholarship. One of the early winners of the contest was a young woman who now says she would never have been able to go to college if it wasn’t for the Elk’s speech contest scholarship. Her name is Oprah Winfrey.

Today, more than 65,000 students across the globe have received an education, including 415 men at Morehouse College, who have received a college scholarship since 2011. All because of one gift.

Tramone Russell, a graduate of a High School in Toledo, applied to Mercy College immediately following graduation–fall of 2015.  Due to his grade point average, he was denied admission. 

Tramone appealed that decision and asked to be admitted.  He was very clear that his high school background was not representative of what he could do.  It turns out that he was caring for family members during high school including his sick grandmother.  After careful consideration, Mercy College allowed Tramone to enroll in classes for one semester to prove himself.  He received a 3.75 that semester. 

Tramone has now gone on to complete a certificate program, and in the fall will be entering our Nursing program. 

But this would not be possible without the financial aid provided by the people in this room through events like the one tonight who made one gift to fund scholarships.

This is a young man who works full time, still continues to support his family, and without your financial support, Tramone would not be in school.

One gift does make a difference. 

When we discuss what ails the worlds today, each of us could cite our own list of problems that need to be fixed. But the answer to virtually every problem we face is simple—education. If we educate the poor and the most vulnerable in our society, we know what happens. The evidence is overwhelming. Educated individuals take better care of themselves. They make more money and therefore pay more taxes. They make sure their children are educated, and they are more likely to participate in our democracy.

In other words, there is no investment that pays more dividends than making a gift to education, especially to a place such as Mercy College, where the Catholic intellectual tradition is alive and well, and values such as compassion, respect for others, and justice for all are taught every day.

My board chair at USD is a man named Don Knauss. He and his wife Ellie are currently providing college scholarships to more than 100 students at three different universities. When we announced their $20 million gift to USD this past December, Don talked about the importance of giving back. Earlier in his career, Don was recognized by the Jackie Robinson Foundation for his commitment to diversity and inclusion in the workplace. When he announced the gift, he asked the audience what they thought Jackie Robinson had on his tombstone. Was it that he was the first person of color to play major league baseball? Was it that he was named to multiple all-star teams or was MVP? None of the above. On Jackie Robinson’s tombstone is written only this: “A Life is not important except for the impact it has on another life.”

As you leave tonight, I hope you will reflect on that quote and take pride that your “one gift” has had a significant impact on the lives of hundreds of Mercy College Students.

Thank you for having me this evening, and thank you for your support of Mercy College. 

James THarris III, DEd