Chatham University president Esther Barazzone was aboard a flight to China, somewhere over "inner Manchuria," when she opened the envelope that trustee Sigo Falk had handed her and told her to keep sealed until after she'd reached the Pacific Ocean.
As she read the nearly 50 pages inside the envelope, she began to realize that Mr. Falk was planning to fold his family foundation, The Falk Foundation, and she thought she was being let down gently on the news that the foundation wouldn't be able to provide Chatham with further financial support.
But then she got to the end of the packet and realized Mr. Falk instead wanted to direct the bulk of the foundations' riches -- $15 million to be exact -- directly to Chatham, in what would be the largest gift in the school's 144-year history.
"My seatmates must have thought that someone on the airplane had lost her mind, or that I was reading one heck of a romance novel, because the tears were flowing," she said, tearing up again Thursday sharing the story at a news conference.
The gift will go toward supporting Chatham's Eden Hall Campus and its School of Sustainability & the Environment in the form of new faculty positions, the expansion of the Rachel Carson Institute and Eden Hall campus building development.
In recognition of the gift, the School of Sustainability & the Environment will be renamed the Falk School of Sustainability at Chatham University. The gift will also fund the endowed Sigo Falk Faculty Chair in Social Justice & Sustainability.
Given that Mr. Falk was nearing 80 and that the foundation was nearing the end of its office space, he said that it seemed like a good time to examine its future. The foundation decided this spring that it could make the most impact by folding with a major gift or two.
When the foundation was founded in 1929, it was only intended to have a 35-year life span, Mr. Falk said.
The Eden Hall Campus stemmed from a 2008 gift to Chatham of 388 acres in Richland from the Eden Hall Foundation. The campus focuses on sustainability, with Phase I of construction scheduled to be completed Dec. 1.
The campus intends to produce zero net carbon emissions, fueling itself through solar and geothermal energy and natural gas fuel cell technology. It hopes to be a model for sustainability and to produce research innovations that can be applied elsewhere.
"Colleges and universities are in the vanguard in taking climate change seriously, but few have had the opportunity that we have," Ms. Barazzone said. "When I talk to people, they are stunned at the scope of this challenge and our willingness to take it on."
A tour of the campus Thursday featured amenities like the Dairy Barn Cafe, an under-construction cafe and coffee bar made from a former barn on the property. The original barn was lifted up and moved 5 feet to allow for a stronger, energy efficient foundation to be built.
The exterior will be enveloped in sustainable, insulating material while the inside will be left unfinished to allow students to see the original barn interior, as well as the state-of-the-art mechanical systems used to run the building. On the floor builders will etch bovine shadows to remind students of its farming past.
Development on the Eden Hall campus will also eventually include housing for graduate and undergraduate students, a cafeteria and conference center and a sports complex.
Anya Sostek: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1308. First Published October 10, 2013 3:07 PM