A person’s reach

clemens library

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,. Or what’s a heaven for?” — Robert Browning

I first read this quote in Elmer Andersen’s memoir A Man’s Reach (with Lori Sturdevant) and it has stuck with me. It applies well to William E. (Bill) Clemens, benefactor of the St. Cloud area, generally, and the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University (CSB|SJU), in particular.

Clemens founded Bankers Systems in 1952 on the idea that many back office functions of small banks (especially compliance issues) could be carried out using standardized forms provided by a third party.  The idea turned into a multi-million dollar company that is now part of Wolters Kluwer Financial Services.

From published reports, Clemens donated at least $4 million to CSB|SJU for the library at St. Ben’s, the football field and stadium at St. John’s, and the William E. and Virginia Clemens Chair in Economics and the Liberal Arts.  The Clemens Lecture Series has been especially important in the intellectual life of our colleges.  Since 1987, a distinguished group of economists ranging from Paul Krugman and Jeffrey Sachs to Rebecca Blank and Nancy Folbre have visited our campuses, spent time with students, and enlightened the community through their public lectures.

The Clemens Chair and Clemens Lecture series were funded with a $1 million dollar gift from Bill Clemens.  $1 million for everything we’ve gained in the past 30+ years!  That’s how much a $1 million gift matters to liberal arts institutions such as ours.

Think about it: Stanford recently received a $400 million gift to create a “leadership program for graduate students.” Great. But think about the potential impact of four hundred $1 million gifts throughout all the colleges such as CSB|SJU!  Stanford’s endowment is $22 billion while SJU’s is around $150 million and CSB’s $50 million.

Economists emphasize thinking at the margin, that is, asking what is the benefit of the last dollar spent versus its costs.  It’s clear to me that the marginal benefit of a $1-$5 million dollar gift to a small institution is far greater than the $395th-$400th million dollars received by Stanford, Harvard, or even a large gift to schools such as Carleton College ($783 million) or Macalester College ($754 million).

Bill Clemens recognized this and I hope others will too.  A man’s (or woman’s) reach should exceed his or her grasp; in return, what they grasp can help others do the same.