On a sunny summer day in 1884, California Governor and former railroad tycoon Leland Stanford Sr. and his wife Jane lost their beloved only son, 15-year-old Leland Stanford Jr., to typhoid fever. The grief-stricken couple was devastated, and their initial mourning was followed by a determination to honour their son in some way. The result of this was the creation of Stanford University, which Stanford Sr. decided to build with his and his wife’s considerable fortune.
Stanford Jr. was born in Sacramento in 1868, the only child of the Stanfords. He was a bright and precocious boy, fond of mathematics and music. He was a talented pianist, and despite his young age was already showing a talent for business. His parents were extremely proud of him, and had high hopes for their only son’s future.
In 1884, the Stanfords sent their son to the East Coast to further his education. It was here, in New York City, that Stanford Jr. contracted typhoid fever. He was rushed back to his home in California, but it was too late. He died on June 23, 1884, leaving behind his grieving parents.
The death of their son shook the Stanfords to their core, and they decided to honour his memory in some way. Initially, they decided to build a memorial church in his honour, but eventually decided that this was not enough. Stanford Sr. was a man of great ambition and had a vision for a university that would provide a quality education to the children of California, and he decided that this would be a fitting tribute to his late son.
In 1885, Stanford Sr. and his wife began to lay the groundwork for what would become Stanford University. They purchased an 8,000-acre parcel of land in Palo Alto and set about hiring architects, builders and professors to bring their vision to life. Stanford Sr. declared that “the children of California shall be our children”, and he saw Stanford University as a way to honour his son and help future generations.
The Stanfords poured their fortune into the construction of the university, and it opened its doors in 1891. It was a humble beginning, with only 555 students and 15 faculty members, but it quickly grew in size and reputation. Today, it is one of the most prestigious universities in the world and has produced numerous Nobel Laureates and groundbreaking research.
The Stanfords’ dedication to their son’s memory was clear from the beginning. Stanford Sr. placed a bronze plaque in the library of the university that reads “Leland Stanford Jr. Memorial University”. He also established a scholarship in his son’s name that is still awarded to deserving students today.
The death of Leland Stanford Jr. was a devastating blow to his parents, but it also led to the creation of a world-class university that has provided an education to countless students. The Stanfords’ determination to honor their son’s memory has left a lasting legacy, and Stanford University will continue to be a beacon of learning and excellence for generations to come.
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