Langones' commitment takes WE DO campaign well past its half-billion-dollar goal
By Dick Anderson
The first semester at Bucknell for Ken Langone '57, P'83 was very nearly his last. Midway through the semester, he was struggling in every course and in "an academic nosedive," he recalls. It seemed as if the 18-year-old from Roslyn Heights, N.Y., was going to live up to the prophecy of his high-school principal. He'd told Ken's mother — on graduation night — that she was wasting her money sending Ken to college, that he'd be kicked out of Bucknell by Christmas.
The encouragement of economics professor Russell Headley, who was impressed with Ken's grasp of supply and demand — coupled with the intervention of Fitz Walling '46, who served as director of admissions for more than 20 years — set Ken on a course to not only prove his principal wrong, but also to graduate with a degree in economics and political science in three and a half years. (Without Walling — who remained, as Ken says, a "dear and close friend" until his death in 2014 — "I'd have been gone in 12 weeks.")
Nearly 60 years to the day after picking up his diploma at Bucknell's June 1957 Commencement ceremony, Langone called President John Bravman with the news that he and his wife, Elaine P'83, were pledging $30 million toward endowed financial aid for future Bucknellians. And, just like that, WE DO, The Campaign for Bucknell University, eclipsed its $500 million goal.
What excites him most about the future of Bucknell? "The kids. The kids," Langone says. "That's what we're betting on — that they will be even better than we are. The biggest problem that we face is income inequality, and the only way you're going to address that is through education.
"We live in the greatest country on Earth," he adds. "The only tangible way I can express my gratitude is by sharing and giving back."
The Langones' commitment — the largest in school history — is only the latest in a lifetime of philanthropy that has transformed the life of the University. During the seven-year Campaign for Bucknell (1983–90), the couple supported a National Endowment for the Humanities Challenge Grant and the Bertrand Library renovation project, as well as the Annual Fund. (In 1990, the University Center was formally named the Elaine Langone Center in recognition of their generosity.)
A $5 million gift in 1994 for financial aid endowment created the Kenneth G. Langone Scholarship Fund. Their $11 million pledge in 1999 was the catalyst to build the $31 million Kenneth G. Langone Athletics & Recreation Center. And in 2013, the couple made what was then an anonymous pledge of $10 million as part of the WE DO Campaign for future financial aid. Their WE DO gifts and pledges total more than $42 million.
Were it not for a chance encounter in the spring of 1953, Langone may never have attended Bucknell. While he was a high-school senior visiting some buddies already attending the University, Langone paid a visit to the Carnegie Building. There, an impromptu conversation with University Registrar George R. Faint led to a letter of acceptance five days later. ("I think the standards of admission were a bit lower back then," Langone says with a laugh.)
Langone met Elaine Abbe at a party in June 1954, right after finishing his first year at Bucknell, and she paid her first visit to campus for a football game that fall. "She loved it," Ken recalls. "She's always loved it." They were married Sept. 15, 1956, before his senior year, and with a $300 loan from the University, he completed a full year's studies in a single semester.
Over the last six decades, Langone has lived the American Dream, building one company (The Home Depot) that changed an industry, investing and innovating in many others, and — with the love and support of his bride of nearly 61 years — sharing his good fortune with others so that future generations of students can have the same opportunities that his parents and alma mater gave him.
"My late, dear father suggested to me a yardstick by which I should judge all of my actions, and I recommend it to you," Ken said in a Commencement address to the Class of 2002. "He urged that before I did anything I should ask myself the question: If what I did today was on the front page of tomorrow's newspaper, would I feel good about it? Would I be proud of it? If you think of this simple rule, it applies to virtually everything we do, and the odds are that by using it you will usually come to the right decision."
In 2007, 50 years after his own graduation from Bucknell, Ken returned with Elaine to campus for Reunion Weekend to receive the highest honor bestowed by the University — the Stephen W. Taylor Medal.
"How wonderful it is in this country that you can be whatever you want to be if you want it bad enough," he said then. "I can't tell you how grateful I am that I got accepted into this institution and that I came here. Every single day of my life I think about how lucky I was and am to say I was a Bucknellian. Every single day."
For more on the Langones' and others' generous gifts to the WE DO Campaign, see "Cause for Celebration" and the special campaign supplement to the Fall 2017 issue of Bucknell Magazine.
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