A gift of love, and $11 million, to Bryn Mawr College Quiet D.C. man honored an 'adored' graduate

July 21, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

As Harvey Wexler lay dying from cancer last year, some of his friends were concerned that he might not have enough money to pay his medical bills.

But last month, after Wexler's estate was settled, Bryn Mawr College received more than $11 million, its largest gift ever, from the unassuming man who lived in a one-bedroom apartment in northwest Washington, D.C.

Wexler's fascination with Bryn Mawr, a women's college outside Philadelphia, sprang from his 30-year friendship with Joan Coward, a government economist who graduated in 1945. Donna L. Wiley, director of resources and secretary of the college, called it one of the most romantic gifts she had ever seen: "Clearly he adored her."

Neither Wexler, who was 67 when he died, nor Coward ever married.

Not only did his best friends not know of his wealth -- some of them did not know of his relationship with Coward. But a picture of his life and his decision to make the gift emerge from letters he wrote near the end of his life and from interviews with friends.

Wexler met Coward in Washington in 1960, when both their careers focused on the airline industry. He worked for the Air Transport Association of America, a trade organization, and later became a senior vice president and lobbyist for Continental Airlines.

She was an economic analyst for the Civil Aeronautics Board. She moved to an apartment in his building, and they spent a good deal of time together.

She told friends that she was not the marrying kind, drawing parallels between Katharine Hepburn, a Bryn Mawr graduate and her idol, and herself.

After Ms. Coward died of cancer in 1990 at age 67, Wexler wanted to create some kind of memorial, perhaps a scholarship fund. The more he talked with Bryn Mawr officials, the more enamored he became with the college, college officials said, and the bigger the gift grew.

At Bryn Mawr, a chair will be named after Wexler's parents.

Another chair will be endowed in Ms. Coward's name for political economy, and two more chairs in Wexler's name for professors in economics, history, philosophy or political science.

Wexler's views on money, education and philanthropy owed much to the influence of his father, Samuel, an Austrian who came to the United States at the age of 5.

In a letter to friends shortly before his death, Wexler recalled how, as a 5-year-old during the bank panic of 1933, he watched tellers at a bank his father owned give depositors their money when other banks remained closed.

The next day, people lined up to deposit more money.

"That was my introduction to the world of business, human psychology -- and a lesson no college or university could possibly teach," he wrote.

Pub Date: 7/21/96

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