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Gift to Religious Life endows new fund

A $4.5 million gift to the Office for Religious Life will endow a new fund, the Harry and Emilia Rathbun Fund for Exploring What Leads to a Meaningful Life, named in honor of the late law professor and his late wife. The endowment is a gift of the Palo Alto Foundation for Global Community, which is headed by the Rathbuns' son, Richard Rathbun.

The fund will support activities that encourage self-reflection and moral inquiry, including a new visiting fellows program, which will include a series, "Harry's Last Lecture on a Meaningful Life." The program will invite major figures to come to campus near Commencement to talk to students about personal values, beliefs and motivations.

Harry Rathbun, who taught in the Law School for more than three decades beginning in 1929, was known widely for annually devoting his final business law lecture to a discussion of the meaning of life. The tradition was prompted by a letter in the Stanford Daily from a graduating student who wrote that he feared going out in a world he didn't understand, Rathbun later recalled. "I had to tell those kids that the meaning of life was up to them, that no teacher and no school and nobody else could hand it to them like a diploma." "Harry's Last Lecture" became so popular with students that it eventually was held in Memorial Auditorium.

The Rathbuns also hosted Sunday night gatherings at their Palo Alto home where students came to discuss ethics, psychology and religion. Among the students who participated was former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who credited Rathbun with influencing her decision to go to law school and helping to shape the course of her life.

Rathbun, who was born in 1894, first earned mechanical and electrical engineering degrees from Stanford before returning for a law degree. After he retired in 1959, Rathbun continued to teach in the Law School as well as in the Business School's executive development and Sloan programs, where he lectured in business law and business ethics. He and his wife, Emilia, co-founded the Sequoia Seminar, which in the 1960s became the Creative Initiative and is now the Foundation for Global Community. Harry Rathbun died in 1987; Emilia Rathbun died in 2004.

The endowment will establish the Rathbun Visiting Fellow Program for five or more years. In addition to funding other new programming, the Harry and Emilia Rathbun Fund for Exploring What Leads to a Meaningful Life will support activities sponsored by the Office for Religious Life, including the "What Matters to Me and Why" series, the Heyns Lecture series and the Baccalaureate celebration.