Matthew Vassar founded Vassar College in 1861 with the fortune he made mashing the barley. More than a brewer, he was an unconventional fellow who lacked a formal education but had the smarts to teach himself. He was said to be a voracious reader with "an insatiable thirst for knowledge." Although his letters are well written and reveal his keen mind, his awful spelling is a reminder of his humble beginnings. Perhaps if Samuel F.B. Morse, one of the first trustees of the college, had invented spell-check instead of his code, no one would ever know. Like all great heroes, Matthew had chutzpah. At the age of 14, one day before he was to be apprenticed to a tanner, he ran away to a town near Newburgh, New York. When he returned four years later, he had $150: a foreshadowing of his ability to acquire and save greenbacks.
Matthew had a philanthropic spirit. While in his 40s, inspired by his niece, Lydia Booth, thoughts of establishing the first real women's college surfaced. And so on February 26, 1861, the self-made man presented the college board with a small tin box. It contained half of his fortune, $408,000, and a deed of conveyance for 200 acres of land for the college site and farm.
The college grew under the auspices of Matthew and continued to expand (going coed in 1969) after his peculiar, but apparently peaceful, death on June 23, 1868. While giving his farewell address to trustees at the annual meeting of the board, he died in mid-sentence.
|The minutes of that meeting describe in full detail what occurred: " [he] was reading from the eleventh page when he failed to pronounce a word which was upon his lips, dropped the papers from his hand, fell back in his chair insensible, and died at precisely ten minutes to 12 o'clock AM by the clock in the College Tower."
The trustees said a prayer and adjourned until 3 p.m. Believing that Matthew would want them to continue their business that day, the board chair finished Matthew's speech. Ironically, Matthew had written that they were all fortunate not to have had a death or serious illness among the board or student body in the first three years of the college's opening.
A verse from a once popular Vassar song:
And so you see, to old V.C.
Our love shall never fail.
Full well we know that all we owe
To Matthew Vassar's ale.