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14 Bizarre College Donations and the Strings Attached

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For most of us, college donations entail little more than occasionally dropping a small check in the mail after receiving repeated pleas for cash from our alma maters. Some people, though, tend to be a bit more individualistic with their generosity. Let's take a look at some of the quirkier donations schools have received.

1. Bequest Puts Jocks on the Ropes

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In 1907, fledgling Swarthmore College received a bequest that was estimated to be worth somewhere between $1 and $3 million. If the school wanted the cash, though, it would have to stop participating in intercollegiate sports. Swarthmore badly needed the cash—its entire endowment was only in the $1 million range—but in the end, the school turned down the gift and the sports survived.

2. Ivy League Has to Produce Homemakers

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When former Massachusetts Attorney General A.E. Pillsbury gave Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia $25,000 apiece in his 1931 will, he had a catch in mind: The schools had to use the bequests to combat the feminist movement that had "already begun to impair the family as the basis of civilization and its advance." Pillsbury envisioned the schools creating a lectureship that could help keep women in the home.

3. Donor Wants Flowers in Perpetuity

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For years, Indiana University offered a scholarship with a strange condition: The recipient was supposed to drive from Bloomington to Indianapolis once a year to put flowers on the donor's grave. The school gradually decided it was a bit much to ask a student to take a roadtrip to a stranger's headstone, though, so for 20 years it didn't enforce the requirement. Eventually the donor's attorney found out that the flowers weren't being placed, but instead of being indignant he worked with the school to remove the clause from the bequest.

4. Auburn Goes to the Dogs

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When Miss Eleanor Elizabeth Ritchey, granddaughter of the founder of the Quaker State Oil Refining Company, died in 1968, she left Auburn University a generous gift of $2.5 million. She also gave the school something a bit more unusual: the responsibility for 150 dogs. Ritchey, who owned a ranch in Florida and loved to adopt homeless dogs, made the large cash donation contingent on the school finding good homes for all 150 of her dogs. The cash was then earmarked for veterinary research.

5. Mystery Donor Opens a Giant Wallet

In 2009, colleges experienced an unprecedented rash of anonymous generosity. Colleges of all sizes around the country received letters from lawyers informing them of seven-figure anonymous donations. The only catch was that the donor wished to stay anonymous, and in some cases the giver required that the colleges sign a contract agreeing not to investigate the benefactor's identity. The donations, which ranged from $1 million all the way up to $10 million, all went to schools that had female heads. Beyond that, though, the donor's identity and motives remained a mystery, even though he or she donated over $70 million.

6. Bryn Mawr Goes on the Clock

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Did Bryn Mawr need any new clocks in 1957? It didn't matter. They were getting one. Philadelphia physician Florence Chapman Child left the school $50,000 in her will if they would also agree to take her 150-year-old grandfather clock. The doctor stipulated that the school's administrators had to "install it in an appropriate place, keep it in proper condition and repair, make no changes in the fundamental appearance, and are not to have it electrified."

7. Small Potatoes Lead to Big Cash

In 1950, the government had a surplus of potatoes and started looking for ways to get rid of the excess tubers. The Department of Agriculture decided to give the potatoes to Hiwassee College, a small Methodist school in eastern Tennessee. College president D.R. Youell told the government that he didn't want its charity, though. A short time later, the school received a $10,000 donation with a note praising the institution for taking a stand against "the dangerous trends toward socialism in our Government."

8. Three Colleges' Ship Comes In

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In 2006, famed shipbuilder and philanthropist Luther Blount was feeling generous, and he decided to stick with what he knew when making his donation. He gave Rhode Island College, the Wentworth Institute of Technology, and Roger Williams University a ship to share. The 175-foot cruise ship, The Niagara Prince, was part of one of Blount's cruise lines. The idea was that the three schools—all of which had given Blount an honorary doctorate—would sell the boat and divvy up the proceeds.

9. Colleges Find a Fountainhead of Cash

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In 2008, Marshall University received a $1 million gift to establish the BB&T Center for the Advancement of American Capitalism. The catch was that the school had to agree to teach Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged as part of its curriculum. BB&T executives said the requirement was designed to spark debate on the ethical underpinnings of capitalism.

This wasn't the first time BB&T had made this sort of gift, either. In 2005, it gave the University of North Carolina Charlotte another million big ones to make Atlas Shrugged required reading for its students.

10. College Profits From a Racist Will

When Dr. Jesse C. Coggins died in 1962, he left his estate to the Keswick nursing home so it could construct a new building. Coggins made a last-minute change to the will, though, that stipulated that the building would only house white patients. In 1999, a court ruled that the racist stipulation effectively voided the gift and gave the entire estate—which had grown to $28.8 million—to the will's backup beneficiary, the University of Maryland Medical Center.

11. Donor Affects Fashion from Beyond the Grave

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Radcliffe once received a piece of jewelry as a bequest. A nice gift, to be sure, but the late donor was a bit bossy. She wasn't just donating the piece of jewelry; she stipulated in the gift that the president of Radcliffe must wear the accessory.

12. Small College Enters the Scientific Instrument Business

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By the time Erick O. Schonstedt died in 1993, he had built his 40-year-old business, the Schonstedt Instrument Company, into a $6-million-a-year enterprise. There was a problem, though. If he wanted to leave the business to a relative or an employee, the estate taxes would have been nearly $3 million. None of his prospective heirs had that sort of loot on hand. Schonstedt, a University of Minnesota alum, got creative. He gave the company to Augustana College, a school that, like Schonstedt, had Swedish Lutheran affiliations.

Rather than simply turning around and flipping the business for cash, though, Augustana decided to run it. The school instituted new sales models, found cost savings, and changed the company's product mix, and after two years was exceeding profit targets by 25 percent.

In 2008, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at North Carolina State received a similar gift; a donor left the school controlling interest in a company he had started to raise sturgeon for caviar in North Carolina.

13. A Different Kind of Monument

Back in 2008, Katie Kelly covered an interesting donation here on mental_floss:

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"Endowing a school, building, or even a classroom with one's name is a pretty typical fundraising practice among universities today. Demanding a bathroom to commemorate yourself isn't quite as commonplace. Brad Feld, a local venture capitalist, donated $25,000 to the University of Colorado on the condition that a plaque would be placed on the door of a second-floor men's restroom in one of the campus' technology centers. He originally made the conditional offer to his alma mater, MIT, but was rejected. Feld, in an interview with Boulder's Daily Camera, stated: 'I just wanted a plaque outside of the men's room to inspire people as they walk in to do their business.' Quite fittingly, the quote reads, 'The best ideas often come at inconvenient times—don't ever close your mind to them.'

14. School Doesn't Say "Danke Schoen" to Wayne Newton

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In 1993, Wayne Newton made his first appearance in Branson, MO. He offered to give his cut of the first night's show to the nearby Presbyterian school College of the Ozarks. It was a pretty generous gift; Newton's take would have ended up being $15,000 to $25,000.

Unfortunately, the school's president, Jerry Davis, went to see Newton's set. He was horrified by Newton's double entendres and jokes about the elderly having sex. The next day Davis announced that the school wouldn't accept a cent of Newton's money.

This story originally ran in 2010.

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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox
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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

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The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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10 Hush-Hush Facts About L.A. Confidential
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On this day 20 years ago, a rising star director, a writer who thought he’d never get the gig, and a remarkable cast got together to make a film about the corrupt underbelly of 1950s Los Angeles, and the men and women who littered its landscape. This was L.A. Confidential, a film so complex that its creator (legendary crime writer James Ellroy) thought it was “unadaptable.” In the end, it was one of the most acclaimed movies of the 1990s, a film noir classic that made its leading actors into even bigger stars, and which remains an instantly watchable masterpiece to this day. Here are 10 facts about how it got made.

1. THE SCRIPTING PROCESS WAS TOUGH.

Writer-director Curtis Hanson had been a longtime James Ellroy fan when he finally read L.A. Confidential, and the characters in that particular Ellroy novel really spoke to him, so he began working on a script. Meanwhile, Brian Helgeland—originally contracted to write an unproduced Viking film for Warner Bros.—was also a huge Ellroy fan, and lobbied hard for the studio to give him the scripting job. When he learned that Hanson already had it, the two met, and bonded over their mutual admiration of Ellroy’s prose. Their passion for the material was clear, but it took two years to get the script done, with a number of obstacles.

"He would turn down other jobs; I would be doing drafts for free,” Helgeland said. “Whenever there was a day when I didn't want to get up anymore, Curtis tipped the bed and rolled me out on the floor."

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY INTENDED AS A MINISERIES.

When executive producer David Wolper first read Ellroy’s novel, he saw the dense, complex story as the perfect fodder for a television miniseries, and was promptly turned down by all the major networks at the time.

3. JAMES ELLROY DIDN’T THINK THE BOOK COULD BE ADAPTED.

Though Wolper was intrigued by the idea of telling the story onscreen, Ellroy and his agent laughed at the thought. The author felt his massive book would never fit on any screen.

“It was big, it was bad, it was bereft of sympathetic characters,” Ellroy said. “It was unconstrainable, uncontainable, and unadaptable.”

4. CURTIS HANSON SOLD THE FILM WITH CLASSIC LOS ANGELES IMAGES.

To get the film made, Hanson had to convince New Regency Pictures head Arnon Milchan that it was worth producing. To do this, he essentially put together a collage of classic Los Angeles imagery, from memorable locations to movie stars, including the famous image of Robert Mitchum leaving jail after his arrest for using marijuana.

"Now you've seen the image of L.A. that was sold to get everybody to come here. Let's peel back the image and see where our characters live,” Hanson said.

Milchan was sold.

5. KEVIN SPACEY WAS ON HANSON’S WISH LIST FOR YEARS.

Though the other stars of the film were largely discoveries of the moment, Kevin Spacey was apparently someone Hanson wanted to work with for years. Spacey described Hanson as a director “who’d been trying for years and years and years to get me cast in films he made, and the studio always rejected me.” After Spacey won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects, Hanson called the actor and said “I think I’ve got the role, and I think they’re not gonna say no this time.”

6. SPACEY’S CHARACTER IS BASED ON DEAN MARTIN.

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Though he cast relative unknowns in Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, Hanson wanted an American movie star for the role of Jack Vincennes, and decided on Kevin Spacey. In an effort to convince Spacey to take the role, Hanson invited him to dine at L.A.’s famous Formosa Cafe (where scenes in the film are actually set). While at the cafe, Spacey asked a vital question:

“If it was really 1952, and you were really making this movie, who would you cast as Jack Vincennes? And [Hanson] said ‘Dean Martin.’”

At that point, Spacey looked up at the gallery of movie star photos which line the cafe, and realized Martin’s photo was right above him.

“To this day, I don’t know whether he sat us in that booth on purpose, but there was Dino looking down at me,” Spacey said.

After his meeting with Hanson, Spacey watched Martin’s performances in Some Came Running (1958) and Rio Bravo (1959), and realized that both films featured characters who mask vulnerability with a layer of cool. That was the genesis of Jack Vincennes.

7. HANSON CHOSE MUCH OF THE MUSIC BEFORE FILMING.

To help set the tone for his period drama, Hanson began selecting music of the early 1950s even before filming began, so he could play it on set as the actors went to work. Among his most interesting choices: When Jack Vincennes sits in a bar, staring at the money he’s just been bribed with, Dean Martin’s “Powder Your Face With Sunshine (Smile! Smile! Smile!)” plays, a reference to both the character’s melancholy, and to Spacey and Hanson’s decision to base the character on Martin.

8. THE CINEMATOGRAPHY WAS INSPIRED BY ROBERT FRANK PHOTOGRAPHS.

To emphasize realism and period accuracy, cinematographer Dante Spinotti thought less about the moving image, and more about still photographs. In particular, he used photographer Robert Frank’s 1958 collection "The Americans" as a tool, and relied less on artificial light and more on environmental light sources like desk lamps.

"I tried to compose shots as if I were using a still camera,” Spinotti said. “I was constantly asking myself, 'Where would I be if I were holding a Leica?' This is one reason I suggested shooting in the Super 35 widescreen format; I wanted to use spherical lenses, which for me have a look and feel similar to still-photo work.”

9. THE FINAL STORY TWIST IS NOT IN THE BOOK.

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[SPOILER ALERT] In the film, Jack Vincennes, Ed Exley, and Bud White are all chasing a mysterious crime lord known as “Rollo Tomasi,” who turns out to be their own LAPD colleague, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). Though Vincennes, Exley, and White are all native to Ellroy’s novel, the Tomasi name is entirely an invention of the film.

10. ELLROY APPROVED OF THE MOVIE.

To adapt L.A. Confidential for the screen, Hanson and Helgeland condensed Ellroy’s original novel, boiling the story down to a three-person narrative and ditching other subplots so they could get to the heart of the three cops at the center of the movie. Ellroy, in the end, was pleased with their choices.

“They preserved the basic integrity of the book and its main theme, which is that everything in Los Angeles during this era of boosterism and yahooism was two-sided and two-faced and put out for cosmetic purposes,” Ellroy said. “The script is very much about the [characters'] evolution as men and their lives of duress. Brian and Curtis took a work of fiction that had eight plotlines, reduced those to three, and retained the dramatic force of three men working out their destiny. I've long held that hard-boiled crime fiction is the history of bad white men doing bad things in the name of authority. They stated that case plain.”

Additional Sources:
Inside the Actors Studio: Kevin Spacey (2000)

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