John Thomas Swanson was a financial investor from Laguna Beach, a posh seaside city in Southern California that’s about as polar opposite to Buffalo as you can get.
But when Swanson died in September 2011 at the ripe old age of 99, he named an unlikely benefactor in his will: Erie Community College.
Swanson, who lived in a gated community along the Pacific Ocean, bequeathed his home to ECC and two other universities, which then sold the property for $3.6 million and split the proceeds evenly.
The more than $1.1 million ECC received from the sale is the largest gift in the history of the two-year school, which will announce the bequest this morning at a news conference on the North Campus in Amherst. “I know that for some other colleges and universities this may not seem like a big deal, but it is for us,” said ECC President Jack F. Quinn Jr. “We’re really grateful.”
But why ECC?
After taking over at ECC several years ago, Quinn was told about a man in California who was interested in leaving the college $1 million – no small amount for a cash-strapped community college still learning the art of fundraising.
Quinn tracked down the potential donor, Swanson, in early 2011 and asked to meet with him during a scheduled trip to California.
Swanson was a little reluctant, Quinn recalled Thursday. But Quinn showed up outside the gates of the private Emerald Bay community armed with an ECC baseball cap, T-shirt and a plate of cookies.
After convincing the attendant he was a former congressman, Quinn got through the gate and waited outside Swanson’s home for more than 15 minutes until Swanson pulled up in a car with his home health care aide. “Oh, yeah. You called me,” Swanson said to Quinn. “Come on in.”
The two sat in the living room eating the cookies, drinking tea and chatting about Swanson’s interest in ECC.
Swanson, who was known as “Tommy,” was born in Colorado, where he went to college and married a classmate, Marge Brown, according to information obtained by ECC. The couple moved to California and attended UCLA, where Swanson earned a master’s degree in economics and corporate finance.
Apparently, he was a whiz in the stock market.
The couple moved into the house at 211 Emerald Bay in 1934, after inheriting the property from his mother-in-law, Florence. It was Florence who had the Buffalo ties. Her father, Alexander Meldrum, was one of the co-founders of a Buffalo institution: the AM&A’s department store.
Florence had an affection for nursing, and Swanson wanted to honor that by giving to a nursing program in Buffalo upon his death, ECC officials said.
Quinn and Swanson talked for about an hour that day. Quinn told him about the school’s nursing program, which enrolls 210 students, and reassured Swanson the college would abide by his wishes for the money.
By the time Quinn left, Swanson was wearing the ECC hat.
“I left and went back home,” Quinn recalled. “We exchanged a couple of notes, and then we got the sad news that he passed away.”
Swanson’s home – which needed work but sits on three narrow lots and has a pool and guesthouse – was bequeathed to ECC, UCLA and the University of Colorado, said Jeff Bagel, ECC’s associate vice president of foundation and alumni relations.
The three institutions worked together to sell the property. ECC already has received its portion: $1,128,376.18.
The money will be used for the Florence Meldrum Scholarship Fund, which will provide scholarships and other financial aid for future students of the college’s nursing program, Bagel said.
“This is a great opportunity for the college,” Bagel said, “not only to help the nursing program in perpetuity, but it also provides a leadership gift for us that we hope many others will follow to support our institution and educational needs and goals.”