02/24/2014 04:21 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2014

What College Does

Kenneth C. Griffin, according to the New York Times, has pledged $150 million to his alma mater, Harvard. It's the largest gift Harvard has received, and it prompted the president to say, "I was absolutely thrilled." (Really?) Mr. Griffin manages a hedge fund, and in case you worry that the gift might deplete his bank account, his net worth is estimated at $4.4 billion, which leaves some for fun.

Mr. Griffin, the newspaper says, "considered Harvard to be the natural recipient of his generosity, given how much its resources shaped his present."

This caused me to think how much the resources at Northwestern, which I attended in the 1950s, shaped my present. They can't claim to have prepared me to run a hedge fund, which even now I don't understand. Having come from Texas, they did offer me the chance to acclimate myself to banks of snow for the first time in my life. They also brought forth opportunities to dedicate a good chunk of time to extracurricular activities, but that carried over hardly at all after graduation.

There was, as the Brits say, scribbling. In high school I was regarded as a news guy, so in college I siphoned off enough energy from campus politics (activities not divulged to my parents), to enroll in some writing classes. Maybe I need not apologize for what I delivered -- I was an outlandishly immature college kid -- but I would like to apologize to the professors obliged to read it. Once having dared to sign my name to those assignments, I erred in not moving them to the garbage. I've re-read a few and squirmed.

Even so, some resources from that area of college did help shape my present. The most memorable was a fiction writing seminar run by Bergen Evans, an English professor with a squeaky voice, renowned and feared. Entrance to that class was thought of as privileged, and I'm not sure how it happened to me. But on Thursdays we sat around a table like pals, a group of six or seven, and we turned in some piece of work each week. Those were assignments no one dared miss.

While my roommate slept, I labored into the night at my old Smith-Corona, typing, retyping, throwing paper away, groaning to look at my output compared to the more polished work of classmates. My results were reflections of who I was: forced and immature. I survived by at least producing something every week.

Professor Evans wasn't fooled. He smiled unexpectedly my way and, at the end of the course, the advice he offered gave me food to hold onto for the future: "Take off from writing awhile, Stanley, and just give yourself time to go out in the world."

Apparently, Mr. Griffin's college years set him on the road quickly. Mine took longer, decades in fact. During those years I remembered Professor Evans every so often and wondered if I was getting any closer to do as he suggested. I'd like to think so, small compensation for having made him go through what I handed in years earlier.

Incidentally, Mr. Griffin's gift for Harvard will largely go to boosting the school's financial aid program, which seems like a good idea given that the annual cost of attending the college is nearly $60,000. Those kids better not fritter away time with extracurricular activities.

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Stanley Ely's happy and challenging growing up years fill his new memoir, Life Up Close, out in March from Dog Ear Publishers in paperback and ebook.