"One of the most pleasing things in the history of the student life has been the custom, now firmly established, for the retiring class to present to the University a memorial gift." —President William Rainey Harper, Decennial Report, 1902From Harper’s 1902 perspective, the tradition of Senior Class Gifts may have been “firmly established,” but in fact—after providing the campus with benches, lamps, bulletin boards, stained glass windows, a drinking fountain, and a memorial to Stephen A. Douglas, among other things—it died out at the end of the 1930s.
For almost 50 years, the Senior Class Gift was a forgotten custom until, in 1988, fourth-year Christopher Straus decided to try to bring it back. (Straus also came up with the idea of Scav Hunt, but that’s another story.)
Straus, LAB’84, AB’88, MD’92, now associate professor of radiology, talked with the College Newsletter about his efforts to renew the Senior Class Gift tradition and his deepest regret about the Class of 1988’s gift, the Botany Pond bench.
University seal in the floor of the Reynolds Club. (Step on it, and you won't graduate in four years.) Gift of the Class of 1911.
How did you come up with the idea of bringing back the Senior Class Gift?
Even though I grew up in Hyde Park, I chose to come to the University of Chicago, and I’ve never been sorry. I loved the size, the look of the campus, everything. But one of the things I really wanted was a tighter sense of class unity. I wanted everyone in my year to think of themselves as members of the Class of 1988. Princeton in particular has a very strong sense of class year—I’m not sure any school does it better.
When you walk around campus, you see various class gifts, which stop sometime in the 1930s. I decided to try to bring back that tradition.
I felt that if we could get people to acknowledge that they were members of the Class of 1988, they would be more likely to come to Reunion and then, downstream, more likely to give later. If I could get people to give five dollars before they left, I just intuitively felt they would be more likely to become repeat givers—maybe even give a million dollars if they did well.How did you get the rest of your class involved?
I got a small group of friends together to work on it with me. We sent out letters to all the seniors—there was no e-mail then. We largely used the old folder system in the basement of the Reynolds Club to reach out to people. We also met with small groups. I went to a couple of dorms, definitely not all of them. We collected five and ten dollars at a time. It was a grassroots effort.
I handwrote thank-you notes to every donor. I felt that acknowledging each gift—“Thank you, Jeff. Thank you, Sarah.”—was important. My handwriting was terrible, but I tried.
We had a project picked out that cost about $5,000: a bench for Botany Pond. We ended up raising about $2,500. I really wanted it to happen, so when my grandmother gave me a check for my graduation present, I added it to the Senior Class Gift fund. I thought that was a great way to mark my graduation.
The C-Bench across from Cobb Hall. Gift of the Class of 1903.
Was it difficult to ask fellow students for money?
It’s always hard to ask for money. I’m on different boards and such, so it’s one of my responsibilities today. I don’t enjoy it.
Of course I was shot down. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been. But I didn’t just come out and ask for money. I tried to explain that I wanted to create a sense of class unity and that it wasn’t about the money—it was about acknowledging what we had received from the University.
I also tried to tailor it to each person. If I was talking to a businessy type, I’d talk about jobs and networking. If it was an athlete, they might relate to the athletic team approach. I was far from polished.
Again, we had nothing to prove. There was no downside. If we ended up with ten or 20 bucks, that was ten or 20 more than the University had before.How did you choose what you were raising money for?
We talked about a lamp, because some of the early gifts had been used for these wonderful cast-iron lamps on campus, but that was too expensive. Eventually we decided on a bench for Botany Pond.
We worked with Richard Bumstead, who’s still here [now associate director, campus environment]. He designed it. The Botany Pond area hadn’t been landscaped yet, so the bench was the first bit.
We had originally planned to have the bench held up by gargoyles. We wanted one of the gargoyles to be modeled on Hanna Gray [then president of the University, now Harry Pratt Judson Distinguished Service Professor of History]. I still sort of wish that had happened.Did the Senior Class Gift help build class unity, as you had hoped?
I think it did. It didn’t transform it into something drastically different, but I think it was a step in the right direction.
Every year has been an improvement since. Classes have gotten stronger, reunions have gotten stronger. I go almost every year—chances are, one of my degrees will be having a reunion that year.
Water fountain in front of Kent Hall. Gift of the Class of 1898.
A NEW TRADITION: LIQUID NOT STONE
In recent years, the money raised for the Senior Class Gift has gone to the College Fund, rather than to a hardscape memorial on campus. “It’s a human capital strategy,” says Dean John W. Boyer, “as opposed to an artifact strategy.”
Many seniors are surprised to learn that their tuition does not cover the full cost of a Chicago education. The College Fund—which helps pay for internships, study abroad, student life, faculty support, and financial aid—makes up the difference.
“I always tell seniors, when you graduate, don’t pull the ladder up after yourself,” says Boyer. “Every single student has benefited from the College Fund. Somebody helped you. Now it’s your turn to help the next generation.”