Frostburg U gets largest gift

Donor: A man who never attended the school leaves it $727,000.

January 30, 2001|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Frostburg State University announced yesterday the largest single gift in its history, received from a man who never attended the school but struck up a pen-pal relationship with its president during the last four years of his life.

Harold R. Rowe, who was born in 1916 in the small town of Eckhart Mines near Frostburg, had not seen the mountains of Western Maryland for 60 years when he died in Hawaii in 1998. But he left the school $727,218 to fund a scholarship program for international students.

"When I corresponded with him, it had nothing to do with thinking there would be a gift like this, it was just because he was a fascinating person," said Frostburg State President Catherine Gira.

After Rowe's death, his estate supported his foster brother, Hessel. It was when Hessel died in September that Gira learned the value of the check she received last week.

"We had received a few gifts of $2,000 from him over the years," Gira said. "But he had been sick before he died and indicated he had used up most of his money. I thought there might be $20,000. I had no idea there was this much money."

Gira said she pieced together Rowe's life story during their years of correspondence that began when Rowe read an account of a speech she gave at the college in 1994. An acquaintance in Frostburg had sent Rowe a subscription to a local newspaper that covered Gira's speech.

"He said that he thought our philosophy of education was very much the same," Gira said. "We would write about educational issues. He was very concerned with students coming into contact with other cultures. He taught English to Japanese students in Hawaii, and some lived with him."

Gira said they exchanged letters about every three weeks. At Christmas, he would send her chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. She would send T-shirts and other school memorabilia.

Rowe's grandfather, Matthew H. Rowe, was a state senator who backed the establishment of Normal School No. 2, a teacher training college that grew into Frostburg State University.

The state agreed to pay for the buildings, but the community had to buy the land. Rowe's father was one of the miners who made a contribution toward the $2,000 needed.

"A lot of people thought this little community would not be able to afford it, but they came out of the mines, gave their contributions and signed a ledger," Gira said. "We looked it up, and there was his name - James Thomas Rowe. He contributed 50 cents. Most of the other contributions were 25 cents.

"I just think it poetic that decades later, we come full circle, and his estate ends up back in Frostburg," Gira said.

Rowe wrote to Gira that his interest in other cultures had its start in his father's befriending black people in Frostburg - and so being shunned by whites.

When Rowe graduated from high school during the Depression, he was accepted at Duke University but there was no money to send him. So he went to work in Celanese's Amcelle plant as a chemist's assistant in the acetone recovery department for two years.

He learned of a school that trained men to become nurses. There was no tuition - indeed, students were paid a monthly stipend - so he enrolled. Raised a pacifist by his Brethren mother, he was a conscientious objector in World War II and joined the Navy as a noncombatant medic.

"He was greatly affected by the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki," Gira said. "I think he carried guilt with him for the rest of his life."

But his time in the service gave Rowe the educational benefits of the GI bill. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in genetics - and completed the coursework for a doctorate - from the University of Pennsylvania. Rowe taught nursing and other health-related topics at Pennsylvania, Columbia University and the University of Hawaii, never making it back to Frostburg.

"He talked about coming here toward the end of his life, but his health was too bad," said Gira, who never met Rowe and spoke with him on the telephone only once.

"He wrote beautifully," Gira said. "Multiculturalism was very important to him."

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