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Jonas Clark Biography

Jonas Clark's Early Years

Jonas Gilman Clark (1815 - 1900) was born on February 1, 1815 in Hubbardston, Massachusetts, which is about twenty miles northwest of Worcester. This son of a farmer, like most of the college and university founders of his generation, was formally educated only through the common schools. He came to greatly appreciate education, in part, through his mother’s nurturing in him a love of reading, books, and libraries. Because of this, he began a life-long habit of collecting books at an early age.

As a youngster he showed considerable entrepreneurial talent. At the age of sixteen he apprenticed himself to a carriage-maker and opened his own carriage shop five years later. Soon Clark expanded his manufacturing operation to include the making and marketing of chairs. In about 1845, upon discovering that there was greater profitability in tinware, he shifted his capital in that direction. He also managed retail stores in Hubbardston, Milford, and Lowell.

During this period Clark was also active in his local church and was a supporter of the common school movement. In 1836, he married his childhood friend and neighbor, Susan Wright (1816 - 1904). Jonas and Susan Clark were so inseparable during their sixty-four years of married life that Jonas did not join many clubs because he usually did not go where his wife could not. The Clarks became active supporters of the anti-slavery movement. In a notebook kept by Mrs. Clark, between 1845 and 1847, there are short pieces by two escaped slaves turned abolitionist lecturers, Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown.

Clark Heads West and Comes Back East

Early in the 1850s, Clark sold his interest in the hardware business to his brothers and shifted his capital to the lucrative, highly competitive, and uncertain California trade. Although at first he lost money owing to the ineptitude of his partner in California, he formed a second partnership and went out to San Francisco by sea late in 1853 to run the business. At first he imported all sorts of merchandise, but he soon limited his importing business to furniture and, in order to assure his supplies of the products he wanted, began to manufacture high-quality furniture. In a few years, Clark became the largest furniture wholesaler west of the Rockies and he also had a substantial share of the state's retail furniture trade.

In 1860, at the age of forty-five, Jonas Clark liquidated his businesses due to medical reasons. He reinvested much of his capital in the San Francisco area, mostly in real estate. After the Civil War broke out, Mr. Clark became active in various Union-related causes and was a bellwether investor in the then high-risk, but eventually high-yield bond issues that financed the Civil War.

After moving back east and purchasing a mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City in 1868, Mr. Clark began collecting rare books and works of art. While living in New York, Jonas Clark continued to invest in securities and real estate. He also built a combined library and town office building for his native Hubbardston. During this period, the Clarks made four trips to Europe. He developed a serious interest in higher education, visited European universities, collected information about them, and began asking college graduates about their collegiate experiences.

Clark Moves to Worcester and Plans a University

In 1878, the Clarks moved to Worcester to live in the fashionable Elm Street neighborhood. Soon afterward he constructed and leased out the space in two buildings in downtown Worcester. Clark also invested in other urban land and in commercial mortgages, stocks, and bonds. In the early 1880s he began to liquidate his California and New York area holdings. When he sold one property on Fifth Avenue for a profit of $170,000 he wrote: "May 5th, 1881. Deeded 9 lots on 5 Avenue and 72 Street, New York to John D. Rockefeller for $425,000."

In 1881, he began quietly accumulating a compact parcel of land in the developing growing South End of Worcester. By the fall of 1885, he had purchased most of a block that bordered Main Street. It was not until late in 1886, however, that he disclosed to anyone in Worcester, besides Susan Clark, his hopes and plans for what he wanted to create on that block.

Clark petitioned the Legislature in early 1887 for an act of incorporation for an institution of higher learning to be established in Worcester. At the time he reportedly said he had Johns Hopkins as his model and that his expectation was that something "higher than Harvard" would be the result. The legislation was passed and signed on March 31, 1887.

On May 4, 1887, at the first regular meeting of the Board of Trustees, Jonas Clark disclosed his educational and financial plans for the new institution. He dismissed the English model of colleges and the leading American institutions. Clark University was to incorporate the best features of universities in continental Europe and America, particularly Cornell, Johns Hopkins, and the announced plans for Stanford. His plan was to establish a university of three equally important parts: a department of original research and graduate study, a library, and a low-cost, no frills college where well-prepared boys from the Worcester region could get a practical education.

The immediate task, the founder argued, was to hire a president and faculty and to build up the library and undergraduate division. They would then use the coming years to plan for graduate and professional programs and construct the buildings necessary to accommodate them. Thus, by 1892, when the first seniors would graduate, additional facilities would be provided to house post-graduate and professional programs.

Jonas Clark then pledged to provide $300,000 for the construction and equipment of buildings, $100,000 for an endowment fund to support purchases of books for the library, and $600,000 to endow the operating costs of the university proper (When adjusted for inflation, this $1 million donation would be wort about $25 million in 2004). In addition, he transferred to the trustees the deeds to the Main Street campus property and promised the eventual donation of his book and art collection. These gifts and pledges of real and personal property, he estimated, would be the equivalent of another half million dollars.

So that the new university might become "a success and a blessing to the community in which it is located," it needed donations from other people, too. To entice others in the community to start donating money, Jonas Clark made a conditional pledge that day of yet another half million dollars toward the endowment of three professorships. If within two years other donors would match specified proportions of that pledge, the matching donors might name the professorships and designate the fields of learning for the chairs which they and the founder were jointly funding. The trustees proclaimed Clark’s donation "the largest single charitable gift ever made by a person in New England."

Clark University Opens

Clark and the other trustees hired G. Stanley Hall to be the University's first president. Hall then persuaded them that the graduate school and library should be established first with the undergraduate component to follow a few years later, after the first doctoral students had graduated and would be available as teachers in the undergraduate program. As a result, when Clark University opened its doors on October 2, 1889, it was the first all-graduate university in America.

From the beginning, Hall made extravagant promises to faculty members and, being unable to fulfill many of them, would blame either the trustees or Jonas Clark for his broken promises. Hall's arbitrary ways and deception aroused the anxieties and suspicions of several key members of the faculty. Hall had also continually misled Jonas Clark concerning financial aspects of the university. Furthermore, the president would periodically state that the undergraduate division, which he did not want but that was so important to Jonas Clark, would begin soon, but not immediately. As a result of this duplicity, Clark lost faith in Hall, who had won over most of the other trustees.

Because of a lack of additional donations and adequate tuition revenue, the university’s financial prospects became bleak, except for the generously endowed library. Before leaving for Europe in the spring of 1891 Jonas Clark had expressed both to Hall and to the trustees his disappointment that the Worcester community in general and the affluent trustees in particular had not come forward to support the institution, and that therefore the conditions for his own further support had not been met. Clark then warned of the necessity to cut back on expenses until the university got more support from the public. He then resigned as treasurer, although he kept the post of president of the board of trustees. From then on, Clark communicated with Hall and the board largely by letter. In fact, from this point forward the Clarks spent little time in Worcester, residing much of the year in New York City and summering at Saratoga and in Holden or Princeton, Massachusetts.

Faced with this implicit threat and by declines in Jonas Clark's annual pledge, the trustees considered various alternatives, none of which involved donating their own money. They adopted what seems in retrospect the worst possible financial strategy: to refuse to establish Clark's promised college while appealing to him to pledge a fixed annual contribution equivalent to his current gift ($30,000 in 1891-92) for the direct support of existing university programs for at least the next three years. Clark responded in a letter reminding the trustees that he had agreed with Hall's plan in 1888 but that it was clearly not working. He then indicated that he would give an additional $18,000 for the coming year, 1892-93, in order to give the trustees time to re-evaluate the situation and adopt an alternative strategy. He refused to make a long-term annual financial commitment.

During the summer and fall of 1892 there were discussions between various trustees and Mr. Clark on how to salvage the university's remaining assets. Reacting to the failure of Hall's initial plan to attract either large numbers of tuition-paying students or local donations, Clark strongly urged letting most contracts expire and reallocating resources toward the opening of an undergraduate program, which would increase tuition revenue and might attract donations. He wished, in other words, to hold Hall and the board to Hall's promise to start a college. This retrenchment would create a financially sound foundation upon which to rebuild the graduate program. Hall viewed this as a dismantling of the university, since scientists who had come to Clark University for its opportunities for research and advanced instruction would leave if asked to teach undergraduates. The board, guided as always by Hall, rejected Clark's proposals and voted in December, 1892 "that we proceed upon the present plan in the conduct of the University." At the same time, Hall and the trustees adopted a deliberate strategy of trying to just string Clark along and keep him happy until he died so that they could allocate the remainder of the his fortune as they pleased.

Like most self-made men, however, Jonas Clark was no fool and this vote was the final straw. After scrupulously fulfilling his pledge for 1892-93, he gave his university no more money during his lifetime. Furthermore, since he now realized that Hall and the board would not institute the promised college of their own free will, the founder created a strategy to realize the remainder of his plan for Clark University from the grave. Because he wanted to ensure that the provisions of the will would be kept secret from Hall and the trustees, he drafted it in New York City.

Jonas Clark Dies and Makes a Bequest

Clark died at his Worcester home on May 23, 1900. When the will was probated later that year Hall and the trustees were surprised to learn that, except for some relatively small, specific bequests to friends, his estate would be divided among relatives (the Clarks had no children). Clark University would get nothing. If, however, Clark University met certain conditions, it, and not the relatives, would receive its benefactor’s inheritance. The maneuver was entirely characteristic of Jonas Clark in its combination of shrewd bargaining and extraordinary, though conditional, generosity.

His mistrust of Hall was shown by the various conditions Clark had placed upon the university getting the money. Most importantly, the new division would function independently of Hall under a separate president who would, like Hall, be directly responsible to the Board of Trustees. In addition, Clark created separate endowments to keep Hall and the trustees from diverting college and library funds to the graduate programs. Even more pointed was the provision that the college and the university could only be merged after Hall had resigned or retired.

A great amount would come to Clark University if it fulfilled the will’s requirements. In addition to his art collection, Clark left $100,000 to support it. To guarantee that the college would survive, Clark donated $100,000 to support its inception, $25,000 per year for the first three years to further subsidize its beginning, and endowed it with half of the residue of the estate, which turned out to be about $1,250,000. Clark College's endowment would subsidize instructional and administrative costs to help keep the tuition low. The subsidized tuition and the ability to save money by living at home widened access to include many whose families could not afford the direct costs of most New England colleges. A quarter of the residue of the estate, approximately $625,000, was left to the graduate program. In addition to his books, Clark left the library $125,000 to build a library building, $25,000 to maintain it, and a quarter of the residue of the estate, about $625,000, as an endowment for the library. This was one final indication of Clark’s love of libraries since it increased his endowment for the library to $800,000, which, probably, was the largest endowment of any university library in America at that time (This bequest, totalling about $2,915,000, after adjusting for inflation, would be worth about $58,300,000 in 2004).

When the contents of the will became known, the trustees realized that they had no choice but to create an undergraduate college or else lose the remainder of the Clark fortune. Furthermore, they probably would forego any gifts Mrs. Clark might otherwise make during her lifetime from the income of the $400,000 her husband had designated for her maintenance, since she would not only be angry at any deviation from her husband's wishes, but most likely also shared his desires. Thus, after lengthy proceedings in probate court, they accepted the founder's conditions, took the money, and established an undergraduate college.

Although Hall maneuvered to encroach as much as possible on the independence of the college and used funds that had been designated to the library for other purposes, Jonas Clark had largely gotten his way. The college and university merged in 1920 with the retirement of President Hall.