Eugene M. Lang, Swarthmore College Icon, Dies at 98

Gene Lang met with participants in a poster session for an early program of Project Pericles held at the Lang Center for Performing Arts.

Gene Lang met with participants in a poster session for an early program of Project Pericles held at the Lang Center for Performing Arts. Photo provided by Swarthmore College.

Eugene M. Lang, major benefactor of Swarthmore College and namesake of scholarships, professorships, and at least ten facilities on campus, died last week in New York City at age 98.

Gene Lang’s name is all over Swarthmore, but his impact on the college community and in American education goes much deeper, said college President Dr. Virginia Smith: “Gene was a giant in the world of education, a champion of the liberal arts, and an acknowledged force in promoting civic and social responsibility among students, faculty members, and educational institutions.”

Lang, a member of the Class of 1938, was emeritus chair of the college’s Board of Managers, a frequent visitor to scholars and faculty at the school, and a mentor to alumni. His passion for Swarthmore’s educational mission was most recently born out in his gift of $50 million towards the Biology, Engineering and Psychology project soon to begin construction.

Among the initiatives he and his wife of 62 years funded at Swarthmore are the Eugene and Theresa Lang Performing Arts Center (LPAC), the Lang Music Building, Lang Opportunity Scholars, and the Lang Center for Civic & Social Responsibility. In the former, Lang literally built upon his belief that integrated arts education was crucial to development of well-rounded students, saying in a 2011 interview: “I felt the arts were appreciated here but not necessarily part of the educational flow,” Gene once said. “I wanted to do something about that.”

In the latter, he created apparatus that engages students as citizens in the lives of their communities and the wider world. “Gene believed in inspiring in young people a spirit of civic engagement and social responsibility,” said Dr. Virginia Smith. “The Lang Center continues that work by connecting the College’s curriculum, campus, and community through engaged scholarship and collaborative action.” Lang also founded Project Pericles, which supports nearly 30 colleges’ programs in participatory citizenship and social responsibility.

Ben Berger, director of the Lang Center and Swarthmore associate professor of Political Science, recalls Lang as a Renaissance man. “In addition to all of his worldly success and philanthropic influence, Gene thought and wrote with incredible erudition (Google his article “Distinctively American: the liberal arts college”). He could be a fearsome interlocutor, but that drew out the best in those around him. He advocated for and actually lived a brilliant combination of liberal arts learning and responsible citizenship. He will be missed.”

Precocious and Entrepreneurial

A precocious student who finished high school at age 15, Lang enrolled at City College of New York before being persuaded by an alumnus to apply to Swarthmore. He received a scholarship along with admission, majored in economics, and went on to get a business Masters from Columbia. His intelligence and entrepreneurial genius soon made him a rich man; his early experiences with urban life and education shaped his commitment to use his wealth to advance others of lesser means.

Through Lang’s “entrepreneurial philanthropy,” he invested hundreds of millions of dollars in individual students as well as educational institutions. He became nationally prominent with the establishment of the “I Have a Dream” Foundation, which since its beginnings in a speech he gave at his Harlem P.S. 121 alma mater in 1981, has helped fund college education for 16,000 students, and inspired direct aid and altruism worldwide.

Surely one of Swarthmore’s youngest graduates, Lang completed his studies at age 19, in 1938. In this photo of Albert Einstein and College President Frank Aydelotte outside Parrish Hall during Einstein’s visit as commencement speaker that year, apocrypha has it that the young man visible in the background wearing the mortarboard is Gene Lang. Whether or not it was Gene, the august visitor evidently inspired the graduates, none more than Lang, who would become one of the college’s most successful alumni, as measured in terms of wealth and influence on the lives of students at the college and elsewhere.

Surely one of Swarthmore’s youngest graduates, Lang completed his studies at age 19, in 1938. In this photo of Albert Einstein and College President Frank Aydelotte outside Parrish Hall during Einstein’s visit as commencement speaker that year, apocrypha has it that the young man visible in the background wearing the mortarboard is Gene Lang. Whether or not it was Gene, the august visitor evidently inspired the graduates, none more than Lang, who would become one of the college’s most successful alumni, as measured in terms of wealth and influence on the lives of students at the college and elsewhere.

Maurice Eldridge, former Vice President of Swarthmore College, knew Gene Lang for nearly 30 years and recalled him as “One of the most remarkable, admirable and lovable human beings I have ever met and become friends with. His life speaks for itself, but I can tell you he was a genuine model of one who found happiness and satisfaction by putting his money to work through others with plans and visions to make this a better and more just world. His gift for entrepreneurial philanthropy is a model that reflects his personal genius and the depth of his heart. He will be missed, but the agency he has given so many will continue to benefit us all.”

A funeral service was held at Congregation Emanu-El, 65th St. at Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y., on April 12. A memorial service is planned for Swarthmore at a later date.

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