The last time Edmund Pratt, Engineering '47, was at Duke University, he was overseeing the groundbreaking ceremony for the new engineering building in February.
Although completion of the Center for Interdisciplinary Engineering, Medicine and Applied Sciences is still two years off, administrators at Duke who knew the engineering school's namesake best said the building would never have been possible without Pratt's generosity and leadership.
"The two major goals in our strategic plan are to expand the faculty... and then there's this very large building. Without Mr. Pratt's gift, neither of those things would have been possible," said Earl Dowell, dean of the engineering school from 1983 to 1999. "Without that initial naming gift from Ed, I don't think we'd be able to dream the dreams we've dreamt."
Pratt may prove to be as central to the memory of the engineering school that bears his name as James B. Duke is to Trinity College of Arts and Sciences.
His $35 million gift in 1999 to the school was one of the largest ever to the University, second only to Duke's $40 million gift in 1924-which would be worth about $480 million today.
Pratt's gift, however, was the culmination of a long relationship between the University and him.
Pratt came to Duke in 1947, having heard little of the school, and having never seen it. He was assigned to attend Duke by the U.S. Navy through a national college placement program for potential officers. He had originally told them he wanted to go to a school like Cornell University or Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon University.
"I hadn't even had a chance to see a picture of Duke," he said in a 1999 interview. "We got off the train and jumped into little Navy buses. It was hot as heck. Durham smelled like a tobacco factory back then."
Pratt said that once he saw Duke's campus, he was hooked.
"We drove through a forest and around a circle, and then I saw the Chapel. I said to myself, 'My God, I've died and gone to heaven.' I'll never forget the first time I looked at Duke," Pratt said.
Fitzgerald "Jerry" Hudson, Engineering '46, was a Phi Delta Theta fraternity brother of Pratt's. "He was very articulate, he was quite a good student, he was a campus leader, he was the kind of man you might have guessed would have the kind of career he's had," said Hudson, who served as chair of the Board of Trustees in the early 1990s, and for whom Hudson Hall is named.
After establishing himself as a business leader as Pfizer Inc. chair and CEO, Pratt took an even greater interest in his alma mater. He served on the Board of Trustees from 1977 to 1988, as well as on the Fuqua School of Business' board, the Engineering Development Committee, the Capital Gifts Committee and the Leadership Gift Committee.
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President Nan Keohane said she met Pratt over the years in his role as a trustee emeritus, and that they worked closely together on the naming gift. She noted many meetings with him at his New York home and in Florida, where she toured the bay in his boat with him and John Piva, Duke's senior vice president for alumni affairs and development.
"John Piva had the idea of bringing a touched-up photo... with the name Pratt School of Engineering on the front door of Hudson or Teer, or both. It was a very impressive picture and it helped us make the case," Keohane wrote in an e-mail.
The $35 million gift was not Pratt's first foray into philanthropy. After his retirement, Pfizer established the Pfizer Inc. Edmund T. Pratt Jr. University Professorship at Duke. In 1997, Pratt gave $1 million to the Levine Science Research Center. In October 2001, Keohane presented him with the Distinguished Alumni Award. Pratt has also donated money to Long Island University in New York to upgrade its technology.
Keohane said one of his greatest assets was the leadership and advise he provided on many issues as a trustee and benefactor.
"His counsel to us as we thought about the future of the engineering school, in which he of course came to have a strong interest, was quite helpful; he did not try to set the intellectual direction, but he asked probing questions and made some good suggestions about how we get the word out about our ambitions," she wrote.
Keohane said the University may eventually hold a memorial service, although specific plans have not yet been made.
"So many people here at Duke knew him and cared for him and many more in the Pratt School [of Engineering] came to know him, or know of him, through his involvement with 'his' school; it will be important to have an opportunity for all of us to honor him," she wrote.