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Annual Founders' Day celebration expanded

Students experience lots of hoopla when they first arrive at Stanford and when they finally graduate, but there are no grand occasions in between when they get to celebrate what it means just to be here.

Until now.

Backed by the Historical Society, a university-wide committee is revitalizing Founders' Day on Sunday, April 13, to commemorate what Leland and Jane Stanford accomplished when they founded the university in 1885 in memory of their dead son.

Let's face it, says Stanford Events director Lois Wagner, "if it hadn't been for the Stanfords, we wouldn't be here."

Dean of Students Marc Lee Wais, who heads the Founders' Day sub-committee, says the commemoration is the perfect time for the Stanford community to celebrate the university as a special place. "This is not an athletic or political event," he says. "It's the only event where we can just rally around Stanford."

Founders' Day was first held as Memorial Day on May 14, 1891, in honor of the birthday of the Stanford's only son, 15-year-old Leland Jr., who died from typhoid. After Leland Sr. and Jane died, ceremonies remembered all of the Stanfords and the event was expanded to celebrate the whole university. In recent years, the day has been commemorated with a procession and church ceremony, but it has attracted nowhere near the participation it enjoyed in 1945 when work on campus was suspended so that everyone could attend services.

University archivist Margaret Kimball, who has located period photographs that will be displayed in the Quad, supports the revival of this long-neglected event.

"Founders' Day is the point where we commemorate the vision of Jane and Leland, who had just gone through a very serious loss," Kimball says. "They turned [this loss] into something of benefit for all the children of California."

It was just a few weeks after the death of Leland Jr. that the couple decided to use their wealth to help the "children of California" since they could no longer do anything for their own son. Leland Sr. had amassed a fortune by supplying provisions to the '49ers mining for California gold and as a railroad baron who helped complete the transcontinental railway.

In the face of public skepticism and ridicule, the Stanfords set about building a tuition-free university on the site of their country estate. After Leland Sr. died in 1893, the federal government moved in and tied up his financial estates in probate. Jane was advised to close the university but she refused, using most of a $10,000 monthly allowance granted for the upkeep of her three large homes to pay faculty salaries and keep the university open. She also sold her personal jewelry to buy library books.

The university continued to face financial challenges, especially after the 1906 earthquake badly damaged key buildings, but it survived.

Marcus Jackson, a 24-year-old law student and a Founders' Day committee member, says students need to know more about how they got here in the first place. As an undergraduate, Jackson says, he knew nothing about Founders' Day, something the university wants to change.

"We need a chance to look back and feel pretty impressed about this place," he says.

To kick off events, Founders' Day will begin at 9 a.m. at the Mausoleum where the Stanfords are buried. The tomb will be opened for the day.

At 10 a.m., President Gerhard Casper and university representatives will lead a procession to Memorial Church where a service will be held from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Bliss Carnochan, professor emeritus of English, will talk about "The Paradox of the University: 1906, 1997." Carnochan supports the revival of Founders' Day because he says the university has not done enough to preserve its past. "Stanford doesn't know its own history," he says. In other speeches, undergraduate Darlene Damm and graduate student Kenneth Malpass will discuss their visions for the future of higher education if they were given the opportunity to establish a university today, as the Stanfords did more than a century ago.

Afterward, an old-fashioned picnic lunch will be served in the Quad to everyone at no cost. "Students can have lunch with the president, provost and trustees," Wais says. "It's not many times that they have such an opportunity." During the luncheon, actors dressed as Leland and Jane will greet people and the Stanfords' horse-drawn carriage will be on display. The Stanford Jazz Band and a cappella groups will serenade the picnickers.


By Lisa Trei