As an undergraduate, Gordon Y.S. Wu ’58 majored in civil engineering, and the young man who would become one of Hong Kong’s most successful entrepreneurs already had an eye for finance. He tried to estimate a balance sheet for his department, calculating the tuition from its 50 concentrators and comparing that with expenses. “They lose money left, right, and center,” Wu recalls thinking, before realizing that alumni gifts covered the difference. “In a way, I was at Princeton at the generosity of the University and of the past donors, so I wanted to do the same thing.”
Wu expressed his generosity in record fashion in November 1995, pledging $100 million to Princeton — the University’s largest donation at the time. On May 14, he completed the gift, delivering a check in a simple white envelope to Nassau Hall. Actually, Wu’s recent deposit brought his total to $99,998,042. The final $1,958 will be added in May 2008, when Wu’s class celebrates its 50th reunion.
Since 1995, Wu has had financial “ups and downs,” he said. Stock in Wu’s company, Hopewell Holdings, plummeted during the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, but he remained optimistic, quoting Yogi Berra’s famous “it ain’t over ’til it’s over” line in newspaper interviews. The University showed patience and treated him “like a family member,” he said, and Hopewell Holdings recovered, posting its highest profit in more than a decade in 2006.
Wu’s major gifts to Princeton began in 1981, when he endowed a professorship in Chinese studies that helped lure Professor Denis Twitchett from Cambridge University. In 1983, at Wu’s 25th reunion, the University dedicated Wu Hall, the dining and social center of Butler College, and Wu also funded the construction of Bowen Hall, the home of the Princeton Materials Institute. His $100 million gift supports teaching and research initiatives at the engineering school, including the recently created Wu Fund for Excellence and Innovation in Engineering.
Wu said his gifts responded to priorities expressed by Princeton’s presidents: “It would be wrong for me, 10,000 miles away, to really tell the University what to do.” Distance also has kept Wu from serving as a Princeton trustee; he said he could not commit to attending the board’s six meetings each year.
Wu’s $100 million gift is no longer Princeton’s largest. Peter B. Lewis ’55 gave $101 million in 2006 to support the University’s creative and performing arts programs, and later that year, when Lewis visited Hong Kong, the two top donors dined on Lewis’ yacht. “You beat my $100 million, but I’m very happy to be Avis,” Wu said he told Lewis. “You know the old Avis saying — ‘we are only number two; we have to try harder.’”