Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Denny Sanford…. Another Minnesota “Great”

Recently, on a flight back to Minneapolis, I was reading the Delta magazine and came across a special feature on South Dakota.  The centerpiece focused on the extraordinary generosity of Denny Sanford who endowed a major breast cancer research and treatment center.  Appropriately, it was named after his mother, Edith Sanford, who died from the devastating cancer when Denny was only four years old.

With this major gift and numbers of others including those to his beloved University of Minnesota, Denny joins the list of the wealthy who have used their assets to make transformational donations that have a lasting impact on all of us.  We are truly blessed to have Denny Sanford join Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, et al.  They are all pointing the way to responsible and meaningful wealth leadership.  Having come from modest backgrounds they know the value of giving to a society that gave them opportunity.  What a marvelous example of civic virtue.

But reading this story about Denny Sanford does not end here.  Rather it brings back some of my fondest moments when I arrived in Minneapolis to attend graduate school at the University of Minnesota and serve as a counselor at the Chi Psi Fraternity in 1958-59.  Denny Sanford was a member of that group of some fifty young men who had a lasting impact on me.

Their academic talents ranged from average to exceptional.  That would be normal for a large state university.  But what was not normal, at least from my perspective, was the number of students working their way through school, managing all the activities at the fraternity and still participating in meaningful college activities.

It slowly dawned on me that this was a group that truly understood the value of higher education and were willing to work hard to achieve their goals.

Now, as I look back, their entrepreneurial success was no surprise; they were living it every day at the University.  There was no cocooning:  just hard work, perseverance, and teamwork.

Out of that group came some remarkable successes including the founder of a major advertising agency, the world’s leading high-rise architect, doctors, professors, lawyers, dentists, business leaders, developers, and another architect who has achieved local fame for his innovative work in urban design along with a notable federal jurist who established the highest standards in ethics, common sense, and legal knowledge.  One member was an academic All American while starting on Minnesota’s 1960 National Championship football team.  He went on to a highly successful career in law and real estate.

They played lead roles during my service as Governor ranging from developing workers compensation reform to the funding of the arts.  In a sense, they defined the meaning of being a good citizen.  I think it fair to say that all of us learned from the experience of living together, working together, and ultimately, helping each other.  I know that I could never have achieved any political success without them.

But I wonder if all this were not made possible due to an affordable tuition policy at the University of Minnesota.  So many of those extraordinary students came from very average backgrounds and were able to make ends meet by working and frugally managing their finances along with the rigors of academic challenges.

I think we owe that same opportunity to our children so we can benefit from the future Denny Sanfords, etc.

Is that not what American exceptionalism is all about?


  1. I think there is a correlation between tuition and comradery. If you are too busy between holding down two jobs and studying to have time to develop friendships and networks amongst your classmates, you lose one of the fundamental by-products of a college education.

    I would also venture to guess, Governor, that class sizes were much smaller in your day, affording you, your classmates and your professors the opportunity to know each other, at least a little.

    When education became factory-like big business, the students lost out. Gone are study groups, hanging out and talking, working together on a prank...all the things that build team leader skills and a sense of humor...both of which are lacking in the workaday world we inhabit.

    At least, I suspect this is a contributing factor.


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