It was a gala — the type where a uniformed man announced the names of important people as they made grand entrances.
Michael Crow, newly chosen as Arizona State University’s next president, was charged that June night with wooing 400 diplomats, multimillionaires and great thinkers at the Spencer House, an 18th-century palace built by Princess Diana's ancestors.
It was a last-minute request from New York investment banker William Polk Carey, the party’s host. Carey, 72, was on the brink of giving a whopping $50 million to ASU’s College of Business.
Crow, obviously, was eager to please. Perhaps no other words uttered in ASU history yielded such dividends. Crow, said Carey, was "magnificently eloquent." It was one of the final tests in a long courtship that will be completed on Wednesday morning, when 1,400 people will celebrate the beginning of the new W.P. Carey School of Business at a ceremony in Tempe.
ASU officials have dreamed of this donation for years, hoping that in one enormous lump sum, the business school would leap to the ranks of the Whartons and the Kelloggs — among the best business schools in the world.
"The naming was important to give a position nationally and internationally," said Larry Penley, dean of the W.P. Carey School. Carey has a soft spot in his heart for ASU.
Wednesday is the 117th anniversary of the day his grandfather, a territorial legislator, introduced a bill to create the school that would evolve into Arizona State. But the businessman wasn't going to hand out $50 million based on a "gut feeling," Penley said.
Carey posed many tests, Crow said.
“What he was doing there was, he was testing our worthiness,” Crow said. “He was testing how would his European friends react to Arizona State University, a place they’d never heard of? They’d heard of Phoenix, probably, but they’d never heard of Arizona State.
“I won’t say that was the only test. There were many,” Crow said. “We apparently passed.”
The donation is tied as the second-largest ever given to a business school. The biggest, $62 million, went to the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Virginia.
Education runs rich in Carey’s family. Carey joked in an interview this month that it’s “genetic” for his family members to dole out contributions to schools around the country, “depending on whether we have money or not.”
Apparently — tough economy or not — W.P. Carey and Co. LLC has the money. The New York-based investment company holds an estimated 500 commercial and industrial properties throughout the United States and Europe valued at $4 billion.
The profits have enabled Carey to continue a quirky legacy of philanthropy. The same week he donated the $50 million to ASU, he gave $10 million to the Gilman School in Baltimore, where he went to school as a boy.
One of his most curious contributions came in 1986, when Carey, whose business was starting to flourish, began to mail checks totaling $250,000 to farmers in southeastern Colorado and western Kansas. They had lost money years before, when a sugar refinery in Sugar City, Colo., went under. Carey’s family had long held stock in the business.
“The big creditors — the insurance companies and banks — all pretty much had themselves covered, and the farmers and employees didn’t,” Carey said. “I couldn’t afford to at the time, but a bit later I thought I’d like to get caught up on that one. My accountant said he couldn’t take a tax deduction on it, but it’s something I thought I should do.”
Carey, admirers said, immerses himself in issues and thinkers, including Nobel Prize winners. India, the world's largest democracy, is one of his favorite topics. He wrote a $1 million check in 2001 after an earthquake killed an estimated 30,000 in the western state of Gujarat, India. Carey said he's attracted to ASU partly because of his vision for the Valley's future. Boston and San Francisco have been "hot areas" largely because they thrive on the intellectual capital and graduates of nearby business schools, he said. The Valley could benefit from the same kind of partnership.
The $50 million gift will be used strictly to hire the best faculty, create new programs such as international degrees and give out scholarships. ASU has launched a separate drive to raise money for a new building for the business school. The new headquarters will someday sit at University Drive and Mill Avenue — a symbolic transition between downtown Tempe businesses and the education on ASU's campus.