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People & Events
Eastman Becomes a Mystery Donor to MIT

On February 29, 1912, Frank Lovejoy, then the general manager of Eastman Kodak, wrote George Eastman, suggesting that "you may be willing to lend a helping hand, and I am writing to say that I should welcome an opportunity of placing the plans before you." The help Lovejoy was requesting was a donation to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, of which he was an alumnus.

MIT was planning to build a new campus, and though its board of trustees included such financial heavyweights as T. Coleman du Pont and engineer Arthur D. Little, they could only come up with $500,000 of the $750,000 needed for the plan. With Eastman in mind, Richard Cockburn Maclaurin, the president of MIT, had contacted Lovejoy, hoping he would act as an intermediary.

Eastman was extremely careful about where his money went and was apt to micro-manage its use. He was known to demand that the buildings he funded be constructed with a minimum of ornament so as to cut cost, a habit that led Claude Bragdon, who designed several building funded by Eastman, to compare his attitude to "that of Pharaoh." Alternately, Eastman might insist on extra expenses to create the proper effect, as when the University of Rochester was expanding its hospital, and he demanded the stairwell corners be painted white, on the theory that "only a hardened sinner would spit in a white corner." Most important perhaps was Eastman's lifelong interest in guarding his privacy, a requirement that became less sustainable with each bequest he made.

But Eastman had also long admired MIT. Not only were two of his top assistants, Lovejoy and engineer Darragh de Lancey, graduates of the school, but he had read several of Maclaurin's annual reports to MIT's trustees and was familiar with his plans.

Maclaurin and Eastman met on March 5 at the Hotel Belmont in New York City, and the meeting spilled over into the evening as Maclaurin waxed eloquent on his plans for the new campus at MIT. As the meeting finally drew to a close, Eastman asked, "What sum will be needed?"

"Two and a half million," Maclaurin replied.

Eastman immediately agreed to send a check in that amount, on one condition: that his gift remain anonymous. Maclaurin happily accepted these terms, although it put him in an unusual quandary. The term "anonymous giver" was altogether too clumsy for everyday use. After a time, he decided on "Mr. Smith" as a pseudonym and gave the public two small clues: Mr. Smith did not live in Massachusetts, and he had never attended MIT.

The creation of Mr. Smith was the closest Eastman ever came to cultivating a public persona. It became a kind of a game to guess his identity, though no one did. MIT students went so far as to write lyrics on the subject, which were sung to the tune of "Marching Through Georgia":

Bring the good old bugle, boys, and we'll sing another song,
Of "Mr. Smith" and Dupy and the Corporation throng;
Of loyal Tech alumni, almost ten thousand strong,
Who give--what we want--when we want it.

Hurrah! Hurrah! for Tech and Boston beans,
Hurrah! Hurrah! for "Smith," who'er that means;
May he always have a hundred million in his jeans,
So we'll get -- what we want -- when we want it.

And so it went for another eight years, during which time Eastman donated $20 million in cash and Kodak stock to MIT. So safe was his identity that in 1916 he attended a banquet to celebrate the new campus and even joined in as the alumni toasted the marvelous Mr. Smith.

Eastman continued to keep Maclaurin busy trying to satisfy his demands. In 1918 he offered MIT $4 million in Kodak shares if matching funds could be found by December 31, 1919. Finally, seeing that these stipulations were wearing Maclaurin down, Eastman agreed, as a consolation prize, to reveal himself as the mystery donor at the annual alumni dinner on January 10, 1920.

The revelation that Mr. Smith was George Eastman, the famous recluse of Rochester, was front-page news. Maclaurin did not live to enjoy it, however. Exhausted from raising the $4 million to match Eastman's request, he had come down with pneumonia in December 1919, and Maclaurin died a week later, at the age of 50. His speech revealing Eastman's identity had to be read by others.

Eastman went on to become one of the major philanthropists of his era. On December 10, 1924, he held a press conference to announce that, besides retiring from Eastman Kodak, he would donate the majority of his fortune rather than hold onto it. In the short term, this meant $30 million in bequests that he had earmarked for four institutions. Two of these were institutions of higher learning for African Americans -- the Hampton Institute and the Tuskegee Institute. The others were the University of Rochester, where he had already established the Eastman School of Music. For the remaining eight years of his life, he continued to give smaller amounts to favorite causes such as dental clinics and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.

His reasons were plain enough. "If a man has wealth," he declared in 1923, "he has to make a choice, because there is the money heaping up. He can keep it together in a bunch, and then leave it for others to administer after he is dead. Or he can get it into action and have fun, while he is still alive. I prefer getting it into action and adapting it to human needs, and making the plan work."

written by David Lindsay

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