Duke Endowment: Partners in Progress
The story is probably the most famous, and the most significant, in the history of Furman University.
On a train ride to New York City in the early 1920s, two friends and business associates — Bennette E. Geer, president of Judson Mills in Greenville and a former English professor at Furman, and James Buchanan Duke, founder of the American Tobacco Company and the Southern Power Company and the leading stockholder in Judson Mills — were enjoying a chat.
Duke, who for years had made charitable contributions to causes in the Carolinas, began discussing his intention to make a large gift to Trinity College (now Duke University). Geer expressed the hope that Duke might also consider doing "something for a little college, Furman University, down in Greenville, in which I [am] deeply interested." Duke replied, "Well, I will."
Some time later, Duke invited Geer to his home and revealed his plans for The Duke Endowment, a perpetual trust he would establish with much of the $40 million he had earned from his business ventures. The Endowment, Duke said, would provide ongoing support for colleges, health care, children's programs and Methodist churches in the two Carolinas.
As Geer said years later, "He [Duke] then recalled the promise he had made me on that train trip that he would do something for Furman University." When Duke asked Geer how much of the $40 million he thought should be designated for Furman, Geer demurred, saying only that whatever Duke decided would be deeply appreciated. When Duke asked if 5 percent of the Endowment's annual income would be appropriate, a dazed Geer, who in 1933 would become president of Furman, assured him of his "entire satisfaction" with the proposal.
Soon thereafter, in December 1924, the Indenture of Trust establishing the Endowment was ready to be signed. The story goes that, as he prepared to put pen to paper, Duke realized something was missing. He paused, looked around and asked, "What's the name of that little college in Greenville that Ben Geer is such a fool about?" Reminded that it was Furman, Duke wrote in the university's name.
Furman is indeed fortunate that Duke's esteem for Bennette E. Geer influenced him to include the university in the trust. Through 2007, Furman has received $110 million from the Endowment, which is now one of the nation's largest philanthropic foundations. Three other colleges — Duke, Davidson and Johnson C. Smith — also receive annual support and special grants from the Endowment.
Duke Endowment grants sustained Furman through the Great Depression, helped the university coordinate with Greenville Woman's College in the 1930s, and bolstered the efforts to pursue development of the present campus. Since the move to the unified campus in the late 1950s, the Endowment has supported an expanding range of projects, from construction of a number of campus buildings to such areas as scholarships, faculty development, library improvements, the study abroad program and student research.
For more on James Buchanan Duke and The Duke Endowment, visit www.dukeendowment.org.