125th Anniversary Commemorative Event
Remarks by President John A. Fry
December 7, 2016
Good afternoon everyone, and welcome. It’s a delight to see you all here. This a joyous occasion for Drexel, and for the City of Philadelphia. This great university and this great city have been partners for 125 years, one nourishing the other. Philadelphia has an extraordinary history and an exciting future. Drexel is proud to be part of both.
As we celebrate this 125th anniversary, though, it would be natural that we pause for a minute to savor the past. If someone asked me the hypothetical question of what figure from history I’d most like to meet, from where I stand today, my answer without hesitation would be Anthony J. Drexel — the famous international banker, philanthropist and lifelong Philadelphian, who began building this institution in 1889, and saw through its completion in December, 1891. He was a man whose life spanned the defining moments of the 19th century. And so did his ideas and values.
Those ideas and values were part of his historic contribution to Drexel. And they are just as fresh and relevant and powerful today as they were 125 years ago. With some important additions, they are now guiding Drexel into the future.
So, yes, I'd welcome the chance to meet A.J. Drexel — known to his friends as “Tony.” But I’d be greedy about it: Rather than just meeting him, I would want to be his companion on the three-mile walks he took each weekday morning to his office at Drexel & Company near Third and Chestnut Streets in Old City. He started out from the Italianate-style villa at 39th and Walnut Streets in West Philadelphia, where he and his wife Ellen raised their nine children. This was the route he took for many years — accompanied most of the way by his closest friend, the newspaper publisher George W. Childs.
Imagine the conversations that must have taken place between these two thoughtful and civic-minded Philadelphians, as their morning walks filled the years from the Civil War to the Centennial of our country, and the arrival of factories and electricity. As the years went by, it's easy to imagine them exchanging insights on many topics — from women's suffrage, to the waves of immigration altering Philadelphia, to the rise of organized labor.
But the most vivid and fundamental change underway in Philadelphia was rapid industrialization driven by expanding technology, which — then as now — created new jobs as it eliminated others. Mr. Drexel was a prescient thinker. He could see the direction technology was taking the city. What he didn't see was an institution in Philadelphia prepared to teach workers the skills they needed to get ahead in this new industrial society.
His answer, of course, was to create the Drexel Institute for Art, Science and Industry, which was to become Drexel University. In today's dollars, A.J. Drexel's gifts to build, equip and launch the Institute would amount to an astounding $79 million. And some of those funds went into the extensive European art collection he assembled for the Institute, because he believed that having a practical education shouldn't mean sacrificing the aesthetics of art and music.
First among his non-financial gifts were those ideas and values that defined and still shape Drexel today. Our founder was determined that the new Institute would offer: access, diversity and a continuum between theory and practice.
His commitment to access was reflected in the choice of this site [the Main Building] at 32nd and Chestnut Streets. He wanted to build his new Institute — not in a pastoral setting — but into the urban fabric of industrial Philadelphia. And this location in 1891 more than met that requirement: It was bordered by belching factories and slaughterhouses. But it was also adjacent to the city's new railroad terminal. And that supported A.J.'s vision of making Drexel as accessible as possible to working people.
As to diversity, A.J. Drexel was an early supporter of women’s suffrage. And from day one, Drexel was an institution for both women and men. That’s something you would expect today. But it was a bold step in 1891, when the vote for women was years away and even our neighbors at Penn would not admit women undergraduates for another two decades. Like most universities today, we're building on our record of diversity with women and under-represented minorities. And I'm grateful that A.J. Drexel gave us a valuable head start.
But it was A.J. Drexel's insistence on a continuum between theory and practice that most clearly shaped who we are today. It left the Institute open to the idea of Cooperative Education, which — for many — is synonymous with the Drexel experience.
In the early days, it meant preparing people to succeed in the trades. Today it means preparing students for success in the professions, sciences and the arts. This active heritage of marrying theory to practice makes us who we are today.
It means that, unlike many excellent universities, we're not having mid-life angst about our mission. Thanks to the commitment of our faculty, trustees and donors, we are able to combine academic excellence with career discernment and readiness. And that, too, shows the influence of A.J. Drexel.
It's tempting to slip back into the hypothetical and ask ourselves: Would A.J. Drexel be happy with the present state of his university? I believe so. I think he would be proud that his Institute has blossomed into a comprehensive research university with 15 schools and more than 24,000 students. I think he would fully resonate with our emphasis on civic engagement — especially with our neighbors and community partners in Mantua, West Powelton and Powelton Village.
But from what we know about A.J. Drexel's career, I think he would be most excited about Drexel's future as an anchor institution in an urban innovation district that is of its own creation, where we will not only prepare students to fill existing jobs, but envision new kinds of jobs, as well.
And with the help of our many partners, we're committed to making our innovation district — Schuylkill Yards — a source of economic development and prosperity and social progress for all Philadelphians, regardless of the ZIP code they live in.
But that's as far into the future as I want to go today. I'd like to take a quick look back at the occasion we celebrate today: the dedication of the Drexel Institute in December 1891. It was a big event, hosted right here in this room, where the audience included people like Thomas Edison and J.P. Morgan.
But conspicuously absent was Anthony J. Drexel. He was still heartbroken at the death of his wife only the month before. That was the official reason for his absence. But A.J. Drexel was also a man who avoided the limelight — a remarkably modest and self-effacing man, especially given his prodigious accomplishments. And those who knew him guessed that perhaps he also stayed away because he couldn't bear the prospect of hearing speaker after speaker shower him with accolades.
He also was not a fan of giving speeches himself. On one occasion, when pressed to make remarks, he said: “I make no pretensions to oratory. I much prefer to be quiet. All that I wish to say is that … whenever anything is wanted ... call on me.”
And so, if I had taken one of those imaginary walks with our founder this morning, I certainly would not have tried to convince him to give a speech today. But I would have reassured him that his foresight and generosity is still empowering generations of scholars, innovators and civic leaders who graduate from Drexel University. And that those graduates — like Drexel’s founder — go on to make a real difference in the world.
Once again, thank you all for celebrating with us today.