Jane Stanford's determination to keep the University open after her husband died surprised both her close advisers and the public. No one expected the aging widow, perceived as sentimental and excessively grieving, to grasp the financial problems facing the Stanford estate and the 2-year-old University. But even her critics were impressed when Mrs. Stanford, confident in her husband's intentions, took broad control of the $30 million estate and safely guided the University through the next 10 years.
Her tenacity reflected lifelong values. A shy, sensitive child raised in an austere family, Jane Lathrop absorbed her parents' ideals of sobriety, hard work and diligence. Marriage in 1850 to Leland Stanford—by all accounts a loving, indulgent husband—gave her a new self-confidence, liberating her from her parents' rigid control, broadening her life experiences and dramatically improving her social and economic standing.
Though Jane was sentimental by nature, she wasn't unusual in working through motherly grief and guilt over a child's death by writing long, poignant letters to friends and strangers alike. In the 19th century, death had a greater presence in everyday lives, and Americans were accustomed to expressing their feelings of loss, particularly the loss of a child. In the Stanfords' case, however, intimate details of their son's tragic death, their own sorrow and their ambitious plans to honor him provided irresistible fodder for a rapidly expanding newspaper industry.
As journalists ruminated on their interest in the occult, the Stanfords found comfort not in spirit rappings but in action. They stepped up their philanthropy from personal gifts to an array of projects that would improve the lives of children, working mothers and the industrious poor. Together they founded the new University, and Jane enthusiastically took up the design and construction of a teaching museum in Leland Jr.'s name. She later reflected that her social and political conscience was "awakened" during this time and that her loss was assuaged by a sense of contribution.
When her husband died in 1893, gossips speculated about Jane's state of mind. Americans read of her self-imposed isolation and then, shortly afterward, of her public announcement that Stanford would stay open under her direction. She was certain, she told President David Starr Jordan, that she could solve the estate's financial problems. Managing University affairs in the midst of an economic depression proved more complex than Jane had anticipated, but she stayed with the task for a decade. In 1903, she was able to turn over her responsibilities to a hand-picked Board of Trustees with pride, as she modestly put it, in having brought the University "through most difficult times to a fairly successful issue."
Historian and former Stanford archivist Roxanne Nilan, MA ’92, PhD ’99, was guest curator of the Stanford Family Room in the Cantor Arts Center and is a visiting scholar this year in the art department.