Gregory Wendt

A trustee who had too many loans and “not enough” fun wants life to be different for today’s students.

Gregory Wendt, AB’83, has served on the Board of Trustees since 2006. Last year he announced a challenge to support Odyssey Scholarships, a financial-aid program that replaces student loans with grants.

To encourage more people to endow named scholarships, Wendt has offered to match gifts on a 1:2 basis. Donors can name a scholarship fund for $75,000, which qualifies for $37,500 in matching funds. There is no time limit; the match is available until Wendt’s $1.5-million gift has been expended.

What are your favorite memories of the College?

I took Introduction to Legal Reasoning with Ed Levi [U-High’28, PhB’32, JD’35]. At the end of the course, I rather boldly told him the course material was not as interesting to me as I had hoped. He said, “Then you should not become a lawyer, because this is about as interesting as the law gets.” That was the one of the most important pieces of career advice I ever received. When the former attorney general of the United States tells you not to apply to law school, you listen.

Another favorite memory is that we somehow convinced [then president] Hanna Holborn Gray to come over to Alpha Delt for dinner. The cook quit about four hours before. So we served her some god-awful lasagna that we had made ourselves. She could not have been a nicer, more understanding person, who politely ate our truly terrible lasagna.

What surprised you most during your time at the College?

My very first class on my very first day was Western Civ, taught by Professor Loy Martin. The topic was Pericles’ Funeral Oration. At the end of class, a student raised his hand and said, “Professor Martin, you have tragically dumbed down one of the most important pieces of literature in the Western canon. What you have done today is malpractice, and I’m dropping your class.” I sat there thinking, What have I gotten myself into? Only at Chicago.

Did you study hard?

Does it count as studying if it involved Jimmy’s?

Why did you choose to support Odyssey with your challenge match?

I had a ton of student loans. Helping folks come out of the University with lower debt is something I really care about.

Secondly, Homer’s gift [the anonymous $100-million donation that began the Odyssey Scholarship program] was one of the most generous the University has ever received. We need to do everything in our power to fulfill the terms of his match.

There are so many ways to give to Odyssey. I set up a series of scholarships, the Archeus scholarships, with two of my fraternity brothers. Legend has it that archeus is the mythical element that turns lead into gold. We just hope those students get farther in the process from lead to gold than we did.

How about more modest gifts? What makes them worth giving?

I’ve also set up a challenge for the Class of 1983, which is both dollar- and participation-weighted. Participation is important.

It’s very hard to step onto the campus of the University of Chicago and not be transformed. Depending on your career, that transformation may or may not have resulted in a large income. But sending $50 tells the University it had an impact on you and you want it to have an impact on others.

The absolute size of the gift isn’t the only measure that demonstrates your passion for the University. The size of the gift relative to what you can give also says a lot.

Did your economic background influence your choice of major?

Economics seemed like the right combination of being intellectually interesting while being financially viable. If I had been a bit less paranoid about making sure I could get a job, I would have followed my heart and studied history. Looking back, I wish I had.

You’ve given many gifts earmarked for fun—Scav Hunt, activities at Wendt House.

When I was at the University, it may not have been the place where fun goes to die, but it was certainly in intensive care. Campus life is an important part of any College student’s experience.

Is it true you celebrated your 50th birthday at Alpha Delt?

That’s correct. I certainly had some fun in college, but not enough, and the theme of the night was trying to make up for that deficit.

What made the evening really special was the broad range of people there, from a pal of mine who walked on the moon to some very recent graduates of the College. But what happens at Alpha Delt stays at Alpha Delt, so I won’t go into specifics, other than to say Jerry Lee Lewis can still play a pretty mean piano.

Do you have any advice for today’s students?

If a course sounds interesting, take it, even if it seems a bit tangential. I took too many courses that were relevant to my future and not enough courses that broadened my perspective. I appreciate the Common Core today more than I ever have.

Anything else you wanted to say?

No doubt the best decision I ever made in my life was proposing to my wife. But attending Chicago definitely ranks in the top three.