Born in France in 1750, Stephen Girard was a financier who immigrated to the United States nearly penniless and then made his name as a businessman and philanthropist of renown. By the time of his death in 1831 Girard was the wealthiest man in America, and he left almost all of his money to philanthropic causes. When a yellow-fever epidemic ravaged his adopted home city of Philadelphia he poured out personal funds to assist those in need, and personally nursed the sick. During the 1812 war with Britain he doctored the entire nation with crucial financial assistance.
His most lasting legacy came from several million dollars apportioned to establish and maintain a school in Philadelphia for “poor male white orphans,” many of whom lost their fathers in coal mining. Generations of additional funding for the school would be provided by rents from Girard’s real-estate holdings in and around Philadelphia, the sale of which he expressly prohibited. Having been largely cut out of its provisions, Girard’s family contested the will, which after long controversy was finally upheld by the Supreme Court in a landmark case that secured respect in the law for the intentions of donors.
Girard College finally opened in 1848, offering an interesting and practical mix of types of education, just as spelled out in some detail by its patron. It continues today as an independent boarding school serving 550 boys and girls in grades 1-12 who come from low-income families missing a parent. All costs of attending the institution—approaching $50,000 per year—are covered by the school’s endowment. And in a city where barely half of public-school students graduate, nearly all Girard students earn their high-school degree.