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Swarthmore benefactor Eugene M. Lang, 98, of New York City

His father never finished elementary school. After Lang got a college education, he gave back -- and then some.

Gene Lang visits the campus of  Swarthmore College with his family on Friday, June 20, 2014, in Swarthmore, Pa.
Gene Lang visits the campus of Swarthmore College with his family on Friday, June 20, 2014, in Swarthmore, Pa.Read moreLaurence Kesterson/Swarthmore College

Eugene M. "Gene" Lang, 98, a major benefactor of Swarthmore College and the founder of a technology development corporation, died Saturday, April 8, in New York City.

A 1938 graduate of Swarthmore, Mr. Lang used his career in international trade to become a renowned philanthropist, giving hundreds of millions of dollars to Swarthmore College and other beneficiaries for scholarships, buildings, and programs, and to champion social responsibility.

"His impact transcended the many buildings, scholarships and programs he funded," Tom Spock, Swarthmore's board chair, said in a letter Saturday from the school's president. "Generations of students, faculty and staff have been shaped by Gene's intellect and passion, and that's a gift without a price."

The New York-bred son of Hungarian immigrants, Mr. Lang learned about hard work and helping others -- "all the immigrant values that we now think of as American" -- from his father, who never finished elementary school, and his mother, who was a schoolteacher, said his daughter, Jane.

Mr. Lang went to Swarthmore College on a scholarship, with the help of an alumnus who frequented the restaurant where Mr. Lang washed dishes.

"He was helped by a man with whom he had no personal connection," Jane Lang said. "And he made himself into a great success in the business world. He couldn't have done that without the education he received, and he knew that."

So Mr. Lang made education possible for scores of others. At Swarthmore, he created the Lang Opportunity Scholarship Program, which offers grants and resources to students developing projects to create needed social resources. For years, Mr. Lang visited the scholars and spoke to them on the phone, the school's statement said. He also endowed dozens of faculty positions, fellowships, and student scholarships, giving "well in excess" of $100 million, the school said.

And he established or helped make possible 10 spaces on campus, wrote Swarthmore president Valerie Smith. These included the performing arts center, music building, and center for civic and social responsibility, all named in his honor.

In 2012, Mr. Lang gave $50 million -- Swarthmore's biggest gift ever -- to establish the planned Biology, Engineering and Psychology Building.

"He felt as much at home on the campus as anywhere in the world, including his own home," Jane Lang said. "He loved to talk to the students."

After flat feet got him rejected from enlisting for World War II, Mr. Lang worked for an aircraft parts factory while getting a master's degree at Columbia University. It was there that he had the idea to create a company that would license technology products to be manufactured all over the world. In 1952, he founded Resources and Facilities Technology Development Corp. (REFAC), of which he would remain president for the rest of his career.

Mr. Lang and his late wife, Theresa, raised their three children in Queens, then in 1969 moved to a home on Fifth Avenue in New York City, where he remained until his death.

In 1996, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton. He also established a liberal arts college at New York's New School and an entrepreneurial center at Columbia University, as well as the "I Have a Dream" Foundation, which helps low-income students get to college. Believing social responsibility was essential to education, he founded a nonprofit called Project Pericles in 2011 to help colleges and universities integrate civic and social responsibility into their curricula.

"He was not a philanthropist in the ordinary sense," his daughter said. "Not just giving money… . He was always personally engaged by working with the programs and the people who he supported."

Mr. Lang passed on to his children and grandchildren a sense of responsibility to "earn our place in the world by doing good and valuable things," Jane Lang said.

"Some people call it 'giving back.' I don't think of it that way. I think of it more in line with Gandhi saying, 'My life is my message,' " she said. "My father's life was his message, and his message was that we are here; our work is to help the world be a better place."

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by two sons, Stephen and David; eight grandchildren; eight great-grandchildren; and a sister. His wife predeceased him in 2008.

A funeral will be Wednesday, April 12, at 10 a.m. at Temple Emanu-El in New York City. A memorial service at Swarthmore will be planned for a later date.