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Although Harper had the founder’s promise that he would attend opening ceremonies, Rockefeller, eager to prove that he would not meddle with the school, later rejected the idea. One also suspects that he subtly wished to telegraph his displeasure to Harper over the handling of university finances. In early 1892, Gates visited Chicago and was “utterly appalled” at the yawning chasm between Harper’s extravagant schemes and the available money. Yet with all his openhanded spending, Harper had accomplished one of the great feats in educational history. True to his wishes, he opened the school on October 1, 1892, without ceremony “as if it were the continuation of a work which has been conducted for a thousand years.” His hastily gathered faculty was so studded with renowned scholars that the university was catapulted instantly into the front ranks of higher education. On the first day of classes, the new school boasted 750 students, one-fourth of them women, with ten Jewish students, eight Catholics, and a handful of blacks.

Architect Henry Ives Cobb had little more than a year to summon a campus into being, and five major buildings were completed in 1892, another five in 1893. Built at a moment of civic pride, the new university sprang up beside the fabled White City of the 1893 Columbian Exposition. The fairgrounds featured a spectacular Standard Oil exhibit of a miniature refinery surrounded by a strange colonnade of Ionic columns with alternating oil-filled lamps and vases. From a Ferris wheel on the midway, visitors received a superb aerial view of the new school that Standard Oil profits had produced. Since Henry Ives Cobb also helped to plan the fairgrounds, the two projects appeared to blend into a seamless whole.

Once the university was inaugurated, President Harper did not stand still. Impulsive, never satisfied, he began to advance on a hundred fronts. Heedless of costs, he broached new initiatives to create a junior college, a night school, a correspondence school, extension courses for adults, a university press, a special division for laboratories, and museums. As leader of this educational trust, he wanted to dispatch scholars to teach at affiliated colleges in other states—an expensive initiative vetoed by Rockefeller. Harper also believed a university should benefit the surrounding city, and sociologists fanned out from the campus to undertake studies at Hull House and other settlement houses.

For all his pride in the university, Rockefeller dreaded this unbridled growth, which postponed the day when the new university might survive without him. Often, when Harper bagged another famous scholar, the university had to buy equipment for the newcomer—money Harper neglected to figure into his calculations. For all their mutual attraction, Rockefeller and Harper were destined to clash.

As a businessman, Rockefeller believed in praying for good times while bracing for bad, and his recurring pleas for caution were vindicated in 1893 when panic seized the American economy and the university had to stall on paying salaries. To surmount the crisis, Rockefeller transferred another $500,000 to the university that October. He was now drawn in so deep that he couldn’t withdraw—and Harper knew it. Having sworn he would never cover operating deficits, Rockefeller had to renounce that policy and cover the budget shortfall for the next two years.

What made it so hard to enforce discipline in Chicago was that, after the obligatory protest, Rockefeller always came through with the money. In October 1895, Frederick Gates went to Chicago armed with a letter from Rockefeller pledging another $3 million for the school’s endowment—possibly the largest such sum ever given at one time by one man for educational purposes and worth about $50 million today. Soon after, Harper and the university secretary, Thomas W. Goodspeed, attended a football game between Chicago and Wisconsin. During the first half, they told coach Amos Alonzo Stagg—who set up the first department of physical culture at an American university—about the gift. With Chicago trailing 12 to 10 at halftime, Stagg suggested that the team be informed “because I felt that it would be a strong piece of psychology to do so,” as he said. When told by Harper of the gift in the locker room, the team’s captain roared, “Three million dollars!” and gave another player a gleeful slap on the back. “Just watch us play football.” With that, the born-again squad streamed back onto the field and beat Wisconsin 22 to 12. Later on, students lit a huge celebratory bonfire on campus and sang hymns to Rockefeller, including one that began, “there was a man sent from God whose name was John.”

Despite a standing offer to tour his creation, Rockefeller declined to visit Chicago for several years, reluctant to have the university overly identified with his name. As Gates told Harper, “There are as you know advantages to the University (advantages in your canvass for funds) in the disinterested way in which Mr. Rockefeller has given his money.” Beyond that, Rockefeller cherished his privacy and hated public occasions. When Harper finally persuaded him to attend the first class quinquennial celebration in July 1897, he promised that Rockefeller would not need to speak. The patron’s ideal was to amble unseen through the campus for a couple of hours, an anonymous voyeur, relishing his creation.

As hundreds of students and professors, clad in caps and gowns, trooped into a huge tent in the central quadrangle on a sweltering July day, only one figure wore a plain frock coat and silk hat: the university founder, who marched, as he had since boyhood, with his eyes fixed on the ground. Far from being a fire-breathing mogul, he seemed quiet and faintly embarrassed by the fuss being made over him. When he got up on stage, 3,000 people gazed in fascination at this reclusive American legend who had mesmerized the public as both a sinner and saint. It was so stifling inside the tent that hundreds of palm-leaf fans undulated in the audience. When Harper rose and reviewed the future needs of the university, he turned expectantly toward Rockefeller and referred to the pressing need for a hall to replace this temporary tent, eliciting an ambiguous smile from Rockefeller, who must have squirmed in his seat. Then the titan rose to address the crowd:

“I want to thank your Board of Trustees, your President and all who have shared in this most wonderful beginning. It is but a beginning”—he was interrupted by frenzied applause—“and you will do the rest.” The audience quieted down. “You have the privilege to complete it, you and your sons and your daughters. I believe in the work. It is the best investment I ever made in my life. Why shouldn’t people give to the University of Chicago money, time, their best efforts? Why not? It is the grandest opportunity ever presented. Where were gathered ever a better Board of Trustees, a better Faculty? I am profoundly, profoundly thankful that I had anything to do with this affair.” A roar of appreciative laughter. “The good Lord gave me the money, and how could I withhold it from Chicago?”

This article is adapted from the book Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow, a National Book Award–winning historian. Copyright ©1998 by Ronald Chernow. Reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.

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