Macalester TodayFall 2010

A Gentle and Generous Man

by Brian Rosenberg

george mairs

Although Macalester friend George A. Mairs ’50 never saw the finished Leonard Center, he did visit the building while it was under construction. Mairs (center) is shown there with President Brian Rosenberg (left) and Vice President for Advancement Tommy Bonner (right).

We talk a good deal in general terms about what it means to be an engaged and supportive alumnus of Macalester. I would like to devote this column to the memory of one particular alumnus who was a model of generous engagement and whose influence on the institution from which he graduated was quiet but lasting and profound. When George Mairs earned an economics degree from Macalester in 1950, his connections to the college were already strong. His father, also named George, had founded in 1931 the St. Paul investment firm Mairs and Power.

Though not himself a graduate of Macalester, he served on the Board of Trustees, remarkably, from 1930 to 1975, one of the longest terms in the history of the college. George Mairs ’50 worked at that same firm for 58 years, including as manager of the acclaimed Mairs and Power Growth Fund and eventually as chairman and CEO.

George’s devotion to the city of St. Paul was both extraordinary and selfless. He knew more about the history and culture of the city than anyone else I have ever met. The list of the organizations and institutions he supported with his time, energy, and resources—including but not limited to St. Paul Academy and Summit School, the Wilder Foundation, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Presbyterian Homes, Episcopal Homes, and the Ramsey County Historical Society—is especially remarkable given his busy professional and family life and his utter absence of any desire for recognition.

George brought to the selection of his philanthropic activities the same care he brought to the selection of the companies in which to invest. He studied the nature and value of the mission and the quality of the people; he determined how he could be most helpful to the fulfillment of that mission; he trusted good and thoughtful individuals to make wise use of his assistance; and then he got out of the way. A letter of thanks or a friendly lunch was for George more than enough recognition. He knew innately that people appreciated his help and he did not need or desire effusive reminders. At Macalester, George followed his father onto the Board of Trustees, but that was only one portion of his years of service to his alma mater. In recent years he was one of the most generous donors to the ongoing Step Forward campaign and served on its Steering Committee. It is entirely fair to say that without George’s generosity there would be no Leonard Center and we would not be moving ahead with the first phase of the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center renovation. You probably do not know this because George saw no need for anyone to know it. He saw only the need to help.

I can recall just one subject on which George and I ever disagreed: my desire to recognize his service and generosity by naming a space in the Leonard Center in his honor. I take pride in my persuasive abilities but could make no impact on George. He felt no desire to be so memorialized. Besides, he would say, people would only mispronounce his name— it’s pronounced like the planet Mars, with the i silent—and he had no desire for it to be mispronounced in perpetuity. But I am nothing if not determined. If you examine the iron railings in the Alumni Gymnasium, you will see that the letter M is worked into the design. We all know that it stands for Macalester. What George never knew was that in my mind it also and will always stand for Mairs. We have to take our victories where we can.

George passed away on May 28, 2010, after a protracted illness. His physical limitations prevented him from ever seeing the Leonard Center in its finished form, but this mattered to him far less than the knowledge that it was completed and splendidly serving the Macalester community.

Soon the first phase of the Janet Wallace renovation will be complete. After consulting with his family, and in consideration of his great love for both Macalester and music, we have decided to name a major space in that building in George’s honor. I am willing to risk George’s eternal disapproval— though in truth I do not think he would be especially unhappy at having his name linked to the importance of the arts at the college. And I have vowed to remind everyone who will listen, as long as I am able, that the name is pronounced like the planet. It’s the least I can do.

But my hope is that even as these differences evolve, you will continue to share certain traits that I like to think are hallmarks of a Macalester education. It is because of these traits that—to quote a bumper sticker we’ve given to alumni—the world needs Macalester. Indeed I would contend that it has never needed Macalester more.

Among these traits I would like to highlight three in particular. The first of these is civility. Stephen Carter, professor of law at Yale University, has repeatedly made the point that civility is not merely politeness and some desirable accoutrement of public discourse but rather the very foundation of citizenship in a democracy. “Civility,” he has written, “has two parts: generosity, even when it is costly, and trust, even when there is risk.” I want to underscore that point: generosity and trust, even at a potential cost. “Civility,” he continues, “requires that we express ourselves in ways that demonstrate our respect for others….It creates not merely a negative duty not to do harm, but an affirmative duty to do good.” Think about the nature of civic discourse today and set yourself the challenge of modeling and reinforcing these essential dimensions of civility.

The second trait is empathy, defined most simply as “identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives.” It is in part to develop empathy in our students that we strive to create a diverse community at Macalester and that we emphasize internationalism and multiculturalism in our work. Empathy is the counterweight to parochialism and self-interest. It is a prerequisite for communication across social, cultural, economic, and religious boundaries. It is in short supply in today’s world and thus very important for you to demonstrate as Macalester graduates.

And the third trait, finally, is a spirit of service, which I believe is a natural outgrowth of civility and empathy. What you are being given this afternoon is a gift made possible by your families and this college, and with such a gift comes the responsibility to give back in meaningful service to the society that has made it possible. Service can take many forms; it can be public and visible or private and subtle; it can stretch across all professions and all communities. But make it a part of your lives. As graduates of Macalester College, as representatives of Macalester College, it is what you are called upon to do.

As President of Macalester, I have the opportunity to interact regularly with alumni whose experiences here stretch back many decades. Of course they are not perfect, and of course not every one of them embodies the traits of civility and empathy or the spirit of service that I have highlighted. But these traits are far more in evidence among them than they are among the populace in general. Of course they, like most of you, brought with them an inclination toward these qualities when they arrived on this campus; otherwise I suspect they, like you, would not have elected to be here. But I choose to believe that your experience at Macalester has deepened and reinforced these traits in you and has prepared you to carry them into your lives beyond the college—helping, influencing, and setting the highest example for others. That you will do this I have no doubt.

So congratulations to all of you. May your lives bring you success and fulfillment and may you never forget that you always have a home on this campus.