At 93, Swarthmore College's biggest donor, well-known philanthropist Eugene Lang, says he doesn't expect to die rich if he can help it.
"Having the money in the bank, I think, is not even an approximation of what money means or what it can do for you," Lang said in a telephone interview Friday afternoon. "And I don't intend to die with just money in the bank."
On Saturday, Lang, a 1938 graduate of Swarthmore, donated $50 million to the liberal arts college, the largest gift in its nearly 150-year history, topping only the previous gift he made to Swarthmore of $30 million in 1997.
The 1,552-student college intends to use the money to upgrade and expand its engineering and science facilities and create spaces where engineering and the liberal arts disciplines can collaborate on solving problems facing the world, such as climate change. Swarthmore notes it is one of only nine liberal arts schools in the nation with an engineering program.
Lang made his fortune by founding REFAC Technology Development Corp. in New York, which negotiates international manufacturing licenses and joint ventures. He became nationally known for his 1981 impromptu pledge at his elementary school in East Harlem to fund a college education for the students if they graduated from high school. He later formed the national "I Have a Dream Foundation," which connects donors and mentors with classes of students and which has resulted in more than 15,000 students going on to college.
Lang said he sees education as "the key mission of humanity" and has made a lifetime of giving to institutions and programs that foster it.
"The most gratifying and important thing I can do with money is put it to work under the auspices that can add to the value of lives of others," said Lang, winner of the 1996 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, and former consultant to the State and Commerce Departments in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations.
Lang said he was not sure how much money he'd donated to the college and others over his lifetime and wasn't interested in counting.
As of 2006, he had given away $150 million, more than half his net worth, according to an article in USA Today. As of 1997, $50 million of that had gone to Swarthmore.
"I really don't keep score. That's not important," said Lang, who also has a master's degree from Columbia University. He added in a statement: "I don't want to be a statistical hero."
Swarthmore president Rebecca Chopp underscored the impact Lang's donations have had on the school over the last four decades and said it probably would be impossible to add it up in dollars. For sure, it's more than $100 million with the latest gift, she said.
The college's center for civic and social responsibility, music building, and performing arts center all bear Lang's name. He's contributed to endowments, supported faculty research, established three chairs, and covers a visiting-professor position. He remains emeritus chair of Swarthmore's board of trustees.
He has also funded scholarships for students committed to social change. In the more than 30 years of the program, more than 200 students have completed projects in 70-some cities throughout 30 countries, the college said.
"He continues to support and inspire the heart of our campus," Chopp said.
Born in New York City in 1919, Lang came to Swarthmore on a full scholarship at 15, probably still the youngest ever to have attended, Chopp said. He quickly nurtured his knack for entrepreneurship as a student, offering dry-cleaning service to his classmates.
In his New York office hangs a picture from his 1938 graduation day, on which he received a bachelor's degree in economics; he is sitting in a rocking chair with Albert Einstein and then-Swarthmore president Frank Aydelotte in front of him. "Three very engaged minds," Chopp said, noting that the photo was one of her favorites.
Lang's wife, Theresa, died in 2008 after more than 62 years of marriage. They have three children, Jane, a 1967 Swarthmore graduate; David; and Stephen, a 1973 Swarthmore graduate.
Chopp said that the college would begin on Monday deciding how to use the gift and that over the next three years, the projects would unfold. They will be aimed at nurturing ties across the disciplines, a key goal in the college's strategic plan.
"Engineers have to be at the table along with anthropologists and linguists and chemists," she said. "Addressing the problems of education in this country is not only a problem of how teachers teach but the kind of technology that they can use to help students learn. So that's what we will use this gift for, is to foster those spaces and programs that embrace and support those connections."
Other universities in the area have received generous individual donations in recent years. In 2011, Raymond and Ruth Perelman donated $225 million to the University of Pennsylvania. Earlier this year, Drexel University received $10 million from 1983 alumna Dana Dornsife and her husband, David.