October 14, 2005

Backspace: Preston Mendenhall '93 & Saman Zia-Zarifi '93

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Backspace appears biweekly in commemoration of The Sun’s 125th Anniversary. Honoring not only the history of The Cornell Daily Sun but also the role it played in major campus events throughout the years, each column features different writers chronicling a different era of Cornell’s lively past. Preston Mendenhall ’93 and Saman Zia-Zarifi law ’93 are both former Sun columnists. Mendenhall is an NBC News correspondent based in Moscow and Zia-Zarifi is research director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. – MK The announcement, in the fall of 1990, grabbed national headlines. And the number – $1.25 billion – was astounding. Cornell was the first American university to try to cross the billion-dollar mark.

As students and Sun writers, we were impressed. But what, we wondered, would the big donors get for their money, and what would Day Hall do to get its hands on it?

Almost anything, Fawn Fulbright-Rosenberg found out.

“Dear President Rhodes,” Fawn’s first letter to then President Frank H.T. Rhodes began, “My lawyer and close personal friend, Felix Obermeyer, has informed me that I am able to give the sum of $3.6 million to Cornell in the name of my beloved husband David.” Fawn went on to describe David’s deep connection to his Alma Mater and his dying wish that important things be done with his fortune.

Within days, she received a lovely personal response, offering “deepest condolences” for Fawn’s loss and suggesting that parting with some of David’s cash would ease her grief and honor David’s memory.

Fawn had made it clear that David had enjoyed Cornell. But David had also seemingly enjoyed halcyon student days at Penn. And Princeton. And Harvard. And Yale. And – (you get the picture). Similar letters on similar light blue stationary carried David’s post-mortem offer of support to all the Ivy League universities – somehow never clarifying whether the generous alum was David Fulbright or David Rosenberg.

The folks at Mail Boxes, Etc. who administered to Fawn’s overflowing letterbox in Aspen collected condolences from all the Ivies, extending their hands to Fawn in her (and their) hour of need. Then, like laser guided green-seeking missiles, they quickly focused on the business at hand.

Vartan Gregorian, the president of Yale, proposed flying to Aspen for a personal meeting to talk about Fawn’s donation. Yale also sent a shopping list of what $3.6 million would buy in New Haven (from endowed professorships to cornerstones on new buildings). Harvard President Derek Bok thought Fawn might like to visit Cambridge to walk in David’s footsteps. Two schools admitted they had trouble locating David’s records, but still treated him as their own.

So far, so good. This was the kind of cynical, insincere fundraising we were hoping to uncover. We calculated that most Ivies could find a David Fulbright and a David Rosenberg in class records. We had a plan. Fawn would extend invitations to all the Ivy League presidents to visit her in Aspen. When Rhodes, Gregorian, Bok and the rest of the gang bumped into each other in the airport, we would catch it all on film.

So Fawn penned a second letter to help all the schools in their search for her dear David. She apologized for her failing memory and forgetting David’s graduation year. Alas, all she remembered was that he liked hockey and that his studies were interrupted “during the war.”

We could almost hear archivists groaning. Which war? Did David ever return to graduate? Oh, the pressure to match matriculation records with the fading memory of an imaginary doddering millionairesse!

We went to increasingly desperate lengths to hold off Fawn’s ardent suitors. We even recruited family members to empty her mailbox, drive to California and post Fawn’s letter declining a meeting because she was attending her “darling granddaughter’s graduation” in Bel Aire.

But the requests for meetings kept coming, now accompanied by more intrusive questions from increasingly skeptical fundraisers – which dorm did he live in? And did you say it was Rosenberg or Fulbright? We had created a monster. With our own graduations approaching, and after some research on penalties for interstate mail fraud, Fawn put down her pen.

In June, Princeton wrote that, after consultations with Penn, both schools were impressed by the “breadth of David’s educational experience.” The gig was up.

Then the last package arrived, hand delivered by a visiting Penn fundraising official, unaware we had been found out by his superiors. Noticing that Fawn’s address was just a mail drop, he nevertheless happily reported that Penn had found David Rosenberg. A 1938 yearbook was enclosed, with a Post-it on David’s page. And yes, Cornell raised the $1.25 billion, even without the Fulbright-Rosenberg fortune.

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