The gingham dress and the truth behind it

Have you heard this story?

A lady in a faded gingham dress and her husband, dressed in a homespun threadbare suit, stepped off the train in Boston and walked timidly, without an appointment, into the Harvard University President’s outer office.

The secretary could tell in a moment that such backwoods, country hicks had no business at Harvard, and probably didn’t even deserve to be in Cambridge.

“We’d like to see the president,” the man said softly. “He’ll be busy all day,” the secretary snapped. “We’ll wait,” the lady replied.

For hours the secretary ignored them, hoping that the couple would finally become discouraged and go away.

They didn’t, and the secretary grew frustrated and finally decided to disturb the president, even though it was a chore she always regretted. “Maybe if you see them for a few minutes, they’ll leave,” she said to him.

He sighed in exasperation and nodded. Someone of his importance obviously didn’t have the time to spend with them, and he detested gingham dresses and homespun suits cluttering up his outer office.

The president, stern faced and with dignity, strutted toward the couple. The lady told him, “We had a son who attended Harvard for one year. He loved Harvard. He was happy here. But about a year ago, he was accidentally killed. My husband and I would like to erect a memorial to him, somewhere on campus.”

The president wasn’t touched. He was shocked. “Madam,” he said, gruffly, “we can’t put up a statue for every person who attended Harvard and died. If we did, this place would look like a cemetery.”

“Oh, no,” the lady explained quickly. “We don’t want to erect a statue. We thought we would like to give a building to Harvard.”

The president rolled his eyes. He glanced at the gingham dress and homespun suit, then exclaimed, “A building! Do you have any earthly idea how much a building costs? We have over seven and a half million dollars in the physical buildings here at Harvard.”

For a moment the lady was silent. The president was pleased. Maybe he could get rid of them now.

The lady turned to her husband and said quietly, “Is that all it cost to start a university? Why don’t we just start our own? ”

Her husband nodded. The president’s face wilted in confusion and bewilderment.

Mr. and Mrs. Leland Stanford got up and walked away, traveling to Palo Alto, California where they established the university that bears their name, Stanford University, a memorial to a son that Harvard no longer cared about.

You can easily judge the character of others by how they treat those who they think can do nothing for them.

While I love this story, it is not true. The Stanfords did meet with the President of Harvard University to seek advice on starting a university. They were also considering founding a technical school or museum in memory of their deceased son. But, Leland Jr., never attended Harvard as he died at age 15 of typhoid fever. The Stanfords would also never have been dresssed as described in the story as they were quite wealthy. And, Harvard’s President, Charles W. Eliot, would never have kept them waiting. But, the moral of the story is sound advice.

It made me think of a story I read that came from former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s book, “It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership.”

Mr. Powell wrote that one day while at the White House he wandered down into the garage where all of the employee’s cars were parked. He was greeted by the attendants who asked him if they could help him. He said he was wondering how they decided who gets parked at the front of the garage and who is parked at the back. The attendants looked at each other somewhat sheepishly. One of them responded, “Well, it’s like this Mr. Powell. If you lower your window, smile and say hello, maybe remember our name, we’ll park your car towards the back of the garage. But if you drive up, don’t acknowledge us or say hello, we’ll park your car at the front of the garage so that you have to wait until all of the other cars are moved.”

So, to add to the moral of the untrue Stanford story above, you can also never underestimate the power of someone who you think can’t do anything for you. Take time to smile or say a kind word to someone for no other reason than it’s the right thing to do.

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Arden Clise is founder and president of Clise Etiquette. Her love for business etiquette began in previous jobs when she was frequently asked for etiquette, public speaking and business attire advice by executives and board members. The passion for etiquette took hold and compelled Arden to start a consulting business to help others. Read more >>


  1. Mickey on May 21, 2015 at 8:56 am

    Thanks for sorting out the very interesting and important details of the beginning of such a prestigious Stanford University

  2. Arden on May 21, 2015 at 11:25 am

    It’s a great story, isn’t it Mickey? Thank you for visiting my blog.

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