Desert Educator

There are few institutions that generate more affection in the hearts of donors than excellent small colleges. And no college in America is smaller, nor really more excellent, than Deep Springs, an idiosyncratic place nestled a mile above sea level in the California high desert bordered by the White and Inyo mountain ranges. At any one time, Deep Springs is home to two dozen of the most academically qualified young men in America, who are attracted by its offer of two years of intense academic study, hard ranch work for 20 hours per week, and practical lessons in self-governance—all 100 percent free. Its graduates usually go on to complete their degrees at America’s most prestigious universities, and more than half of all attendees have ended up with doctoral degrees.

All this is precisely as Lucien Nunn intended. Continue reading “Desert Educator”

Eclectically Orthodox

Ralph Waldo Beeson was legendarily cheap when it came to treating himself. Once, when given some new corduroys, the insurance executive turned them down on account of already owning a pair. At his modest house just south of Birmingham, he often chose not to operate the air conditioning during brutal Alabama summers, saying it “costs a fortune to run that thing.” But just down the hill from his house, he had a view of Samford University—to which he was nothing but generous.

As a 29-year-old life insurance salesman, Beeson had poured his savings into the stock of his company, Liberty National, just after the crash of 1929. The bet paid off handsomely, and he cashed in for $100 million in the 1980s. Continue reading “Eclectically Orthodox”

High-Adventure Haven for Boys

The Boy Scouts of America had a problem. Fort A. P. Hill in Virginia had for nearly two decades been home to the Scouts’ national jamboree, which draws 45,000 boys and up to 300,000 friends and family from across the country. But throwing up the temporary infrastructure needed for each quadrennial jamboree cost the Scouts as much as $16 million every time, and the Scouting leadership realized that they needed a more permanent fix.

That solution came in the form of a 10,600-acre site in the rugged Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia, near the deep and wild New River Gorge. (The gorge is cut by the only river that rises east of the Appalachians yet manages to find a slot through the mountains and reach the Ohio River Valley.) The location was perfect: 70 percent of Scouts would be within a 10-hour drive of the site, and it would provide not only a jamboree location but also an eastern “high adventure” base to supplement Scouting’s famous Philmont ranch in the west. Continue reading “High-Adventure Haven for Boys”

From Bees to Trees

Roxanne Quimby moved to Maine because she had $3,000 in savings and Maine land was cheap. By a couple decades later, she had decided that that same land was priceless. Now she is hiking a trail blazed by some major philanthropists before her: trying to create a national park.

In the mid-1970s, Quimby relocated to rural Maine to live close to the earth, without electricity or running water. A decade later, she partnered with beekeeper Burt Shavitz and began making beeswax candles, polishes, and eventually the lip balm that turned Burt’s Bees into a multimillion-dollar personal-care company. Continue reading “From Bees to Trees”

Imperial Might vs. Widow’s Mite

In A.D. 313, just one short decade after a massive, bloody persecution of Christians, the Emperor Constantine granted religious toleration to the small Christian churches in the Roman Empire. Flash forward two centuries. In 476, the Emperor was deposed at Ravenna, effectively ending the Roman Empire in the West. On the former date, the empire was vast and Christianity was marginal; by the latter, the empire was fractured, and Christianity had become the dominant religious and social movement in the Mediterranean world.


In his magisterial new study of this era, acclaimed classical historian Peter Brown attributes this transformation to the evolution of wealth and, in particular, philanthropy in Christian churches. Continue reading “Imperial Might vs. Widow’s Mite”

Philanthropy on the Green


Ecstatic children shriek with delight, piercing the summer humidity. Around a bend in a curving arbor, a playground comes into view. Several dozen kids scurry about, ignoring the summer heat. The first play area features a 15-foot slide, a tower, and a hand-operated fountain. From there, a footpath winds toward a huge bowl of slides and rope ladders, and then loops away to another play circle, where kids swing from maypoles. Curve again, and you see Swiss Family Robinson–style treehouses connected by a suspended rope mesh.

The playground is one of the newest features at Shelby Farms Park, one of America’s largest urban parks. Near the playground, but just inside the shade, chatty parents keep one eye on their kids. Past a stand of mature trees is Pine Lake, where a family unloads a cooler and starts to suspend a piñata. Continue reading “Philanthropy on the Green”

Banana Sam

The banana tycoon Samuel Zemurray is an attractive and difficult subject for biography. Attractive, because his life is a biographer’s playground: He ran the United Fruit Company for two decades, from 1933 to 1954, was an irrepressible meddler in world affairs, and came to be numbered among the American South’s most notable philanthropists. Difficult, because there are few clear accounts of Zemurray’s adventures, as he meticulously cultivated his privacy, as Rich Cohen writes in The Fish That Ate the Whale. And yet in this, the first full-length biography of Zemurray, Cohen builds a remarkable story from a life half lived in the shadows.

Schmuel Zmurri was born in 1877 in Bessarabia, modern-day Moldova, and emigrated to the United States at age 14. In 1893, he visited Mobile, Alabama, where the teenager spied his first opportunity in the banana trade. Continue reading “Banana Sam”

The Team Builder

New York City

David Koch has George Eastman on his mind. “You know the Eastman story, don’t you?” he asks as he leans his six-foot-five-inch frame onto a large chenille sofa. Over his right shoulder, the view goes uptown along Madison Avenue.

He begins to relate the story of the entrepreneur who founded Eastman Kodak. “He put up the money—anonymously—to acquire property for MIT across the Charles River from Boston. He had a condition that his donation for the land and to put up the major buildings not be disclosed until after his death. He was an amazing guy.”

Continue reading “The Team Builder”

New U.

Scan the rankings of the world’s best universities and you may spot a few patterns. First, you will probably notice that, in every major survey, virtually all of the world’s 20 best schools are located in English-speaking countries. Next, within this elite cohort, it is hard to miss America’s dominance: the surveys usually place about 15 of the world’s top 20 universities in the United States. (Please see the table below.)

And if you look closer, you may notice that, among the American universities, the majority are private schools. The names of the schools themselves are revealing. They are not usually named for cities or states. Often they bear the names of their patrons: John Harvard and Elihu Yale; Ezra Cornell and Johns Hopkins; Leland Stanford and James B. Duke. It is striking that of the top 20 schools on earth, more than half were funded, built, and sustained by wealthy Americans who took it upon themselves to start an institution of higher learning. Continue reading “New U.”

Pilgrims’ Progress

This article originally appeared as a sidebar to “New U.”

Desires—like Tom Monaghan’s—to strengthen religious faith are responsible for a flurry of new colleges in recent decades. In 1990, Pope John Paul II issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae, a decree on Catholic identity for new Catholic colleges and universities. Ex Corde colleges submit to the authority of their local bishops and to the teachings of the Church. Twenty-three institutions now adhere to it, including several founded prior to its promulgation, like the Catholic University of America. But nine have been founded since 1970, and five since 1990—most recently John Paul the Great University, a media-focused school in San Diego, and Wyoming Catholic College in the small town of Lander. Continue reading “Pilgrims’ Progress”