With a $100 million donation 20 years ago, Henry Rowan transformed a small Gloucester County college, creating a nationally recognized engineering program at what has become one of New Jersey's major academic research institutions.

Rowan University today bears little resemblance to the Glassboro State College that preceded it, thanks to the Inductotherm Corp. founder's gift, at that time the largest ever to a public college or university.

The school will celebrate the man who made its metamorphosis possible Thursday at an anniversary event where a bronze statue of Rowan, now 89, will be unveiled.

What began in 1923 as a teachers college has undergone fundamental changes since his historic pledge, beginning with its immediate renaming as Rowan College of New Jersey. In 1997, it was accredited by the state as Rowan University.

The school's footprint in Glassboro has roughly quadrupled, to more than 800 acres, and includes a 600-acre West Campus, a $16.8 million library, $45 million science building, and the $28 million Henry M. Rowan Hall, which houses the College of Engineering.

Enrollment at the main campus is almost 12,200, up from 9,855 two decades ago.

"Everybody was energized" by the donation, Virginia Rowan Smith, Rowan's daughter and a member of the school's board of trustees, recalled this week. "It gave the faculty, the staff, the administration - even Glassboro as a town - the confidence to be better and better."

The school's relationship with Rowan began before Glassboro State had any idea how deep his pockets were. Philip Tumminia, then its chief fund-raiser, approached him in 1990 with a far humbler donation in mind.

"He mentioned his company was worth $200 million. I thought to myself, 'What a fool I am. I'm asking him for $1,500,' " Tumminia said recently. He began to make regular visits to Rowan, who then lived in Rancocas, Burlington County, where his company is located, to share the administration's vision for Glassboro State.

They met 50 times over two years, Tumminia said.

"We would talk about public education and how important it was, and how it serves people, and what we were trying to do," he said.

When Rowan revealed that he was considering a gift of $100 million, Herman James, then the school's president, met with him the next day to discuss the possibility of establishing an engineering program.

Rowan, an engineer who received his degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, proved an enthusiastic listener.

Rowan's College of Engineering was established in 1995 and graduated its inaugural class in 2000.

"Getting a $100 million gift was remarkable in and of itself. But giving it to a Jersey state college which he did not attend, and had only [visited] maybe twice, was mind-boggling," Tumminia said.

Glassboro State was reborn as "a high-quality, residential undergraduate program," he said.

For its first group of 85 engineering students and those who taught them, signing on with the fledgling program was a leap of faith. Rowan's pledge eased their anxiety, said Beena Sukumaran, who joined the faculty in 1998 and chairs the civil and environmental engineering program.

"I don't think we would have been able to attract the faculty we did [without it], because lots of us were taking a big risk coming here," Sukumaran said. "We had the resources behind us."

As a sweetener, the college provided every member of its inaugural engineering class free tuition for four years. In 1998, Rowan Hall opened to house the college's classrooms, workshops, and offices.

Three years later, the university was awarded a $6 million state grant to launch the South Jersey Technology Park for emerging businesses. A student who wishes to patent something begun in class and develop it for market may work at the facility as a private entrepreneur.

Rowan's aspiring engineers begin taking "clinics" their first semester, signing up for project teams. Students are encouraged to collaborate with peers from various engineering disciplines, Sukumaran said.

That innovative approach is part of what attracted them to Rowan, several engineering majors said last week.

Henry Rowan's hope was to create this sort of nontraditional curriculum, said Smith, an executive at Inductotherm who lives in Bucks County, where her father also now resides.

"He wasn't really thinking about creating a university or even a research university," she said. "His goal was to make a difference in undergraduate education," especially for those interested in his profession.

"I think that's probably what he's most proud of, that this isn't just another engineering school imitating one of the great ones out there."

Henry Rowan declined to be interviewed.

The larger university has been radically changed by Rowan's largesse and the rise of the engineering program, said Steven Chin, who joined the school's administration in 1997. The college, of which he is interim dean, has 821 students in its undergraduate and master's programs.

The gift led to other donations and a higher profile from initiatives such as the university's Cooper Medical School in Camden, which opened this fall.

"I don't think what we've seen accomplished in the last 15 years could have happened by just an evolution," Chin said. "It had to be a revolution, and [Rowan's] gift gave that push to make it happen."

Henry Rowan's generosity also had repercussions outside the school, whose endowment has grown to $148,000,000 from $787,000 in 1992. It has changed educational philanthropy itself.

"Most public institutions, other than the Big Ten and major universities, they didn't fund-raise," Tumminia said. "It's honest-to-god shocking that someone would give so much money to a public institution."

At the time, Rowan's was the second-largest educational gift ever - behind a $105 million donation to private Emory University, according to Rowan University literature. Since then, higher education institutions have received around 120 donations of $100 million or more.

"I don't think of myself as a philanthropist. I made an investment in something I believed in," Rowan recently told the school.

"It's been a very successful and enjoyable venture with the university," he said. "The progress has exceeded my expectations."

Contact Jonathan Lai at 856-779-3220 or jlai@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @elaijuh.