Decoding the Myths of Asa Packer, 1805?-1879

Philanthropy and Education

Packer fits in with a class of men who, after making their fortune through industrialization, turned to education and contributed to its changing landscape after the Civil War.  Packer’s gift of $500,000 and 57 acres of land was considered the largest donation at that time, and it was followed by many others, like Daniel Drew, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Johns Hopkins, and Leland Stanford, who all had universities named for them.  Christopher Lucas emphasizes the significance of these philanthropists: “Most important of all perhaps was the growth in surplus capital potentially available for institution-building from the accumulated fortunes of industrial entrepreneurs, railroad tycoons and business magnates.”  John Thelin adds, “Colleges and universities were particular favorites of the major donors in the late nineteenth century.  Higher education’s good fortune was that many of the new capitalists opted to build magnificent campus architecture and even to endow namesake colleges, such as Vanderbilt, Johns Hopkins, Cornell, Carnegie, Clark, Tulane, Mellon, Tufts, Stanford, Tulane, and Rice that flourished as new universities."  

However, Thelin notes, “The liability of largesse was that the gifts were often windfalls – one time occurrences – whose stewardship was not always characterized by systematic planning of careful spending.”  Luckily for Lehigh, in contrast to these “windfall” gifts, Packer remained a dedicated donor throughout his life.  When Lehigh came upon difficult financial times in the 1870s, he made yearly contributions that kept the school open and made tuition free.  After the death of his daughter Lucy, Packer donated another $500,000 for the building and furnishing of Linderman Library in 1877.   Packer’s generosity outlived him, with provisions in his will for a donation of 1.5 million dollars to Lehigh.  After his death, Packer was mentioned along with famous philanthropists J.P. Morgan and George Peabody for sharing the “fad” of promoting education.  Overall, Packer’s generosity fits with the trend for rich industrialists yet, in some respects, it goes beyond expectations through his persistent dedication to Lehigh.

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