The University of Oregon in Eugene has a reputation as a bastion for liberal thought and progressive ideologies. It should therefore come as no surprise that its first great benefactor was, himself, something of a young upstart. Born in the Kingdom of Bavaria in 1835, Ferdinand Heinrich Gustav Hilgard clashed frequently over politics with his conservative father. Hoping to grind some discipline into his son, Ferdinand’s father had him shipped off to a quasi-military academy in France.
Fleeing to the Land of Lincoln
Ferdinand was still in his teens when he fled Europe and, to evade his father, changed his name to Henry Villard. He arrived in the United States just as tensions mounted toward inevitable Civil War. Though a fractured and dangerous time in American history, it was one of great opportunity for those in the business of reporting the news. Henry began his career as a journalist at a critical moment in the nation’s development, working the campaign trail in 1860, as a man named Abraham Lincoln rose to the presidency.
Then, as the Confederate and Union armies massed throughout the nation, Villard became a war correspondent. The horrific violence he witnessed both in the splintering US and as a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune in the Austro-Prussian War would have a profound impact on Villard’s attitude. He became a declared pacifist and only further reinforced his progressive bonafides by marrying prominent women’s suffragette Helen Frances Garrison in the late 1860s.
Riding the Rails in the Great Northwest
After a brief respite in Germany for health reasons, Villard returned to the US and settled in the Pacific Northwest. So impressed was Villard with the beauty and bounty of the region that he began to invest aggressively in transportation industries there. As the 1870s wore on, Villard grew his interests in Oregon as the owner of several rail and steamship operations.
At about the same time Villard was growing wealthy, a fledgling institution was struggling to keep its head above water. In spite of paltry funding from a state that itself had just recently been admitted to the Union, Oregon State University (as the University of Oregon was originally named) was granted its charter from the state legislature in 1872. In its first years of existence, the public college toiled just to stay alive. Hanging on by a thread, the school held an array of strawberry festivals, church socials, and produce sales to pay down its debts. In 1883, these debts threatened to consume the institution before the now-affluent Mr. Villard stepped in.
Sharing the Wealth
By this juncture, the former journalist was actually a newspaper magnate, having recently purchased both the New York Evening Post and The Nation. Paying $7,000 of debt on behalf of the University, and subsequently donating $50,000 to its coffers, Villard was singularly responsible for the school’s survival in those lean years.
He also contributed generously to Harvard and Columbia Universities, funded the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History, built orphanages, hospitals and nursing schools, and was just generally an awesome guy during his later years as a prominent philanthropist.
He continued to pursue his business interests up until the end as well, even working with a guy named Thomas Edison on the Edison Electric Light Company, the forerunner to General Electric.
Villard died of a stroke in his country home, in Dobbs Ferry, New York in 1900, a deeply accomplished man in just sixty-five years of life.
Learn more about the lesser-known heroes and legends
behind many of our most-loved educational institutions!