$5.6 million gift to help fund Thomas Commons renovation

A gift of $5.6 million from the estate of a Cornell College parent—one of the largest outright gifts in the history of the college—will go toward renovations of the Thomas Commons and endow a scholarship in his daughter’s name.

The gift came from the estate of James Russell, father of Dr. Jean Russell ’65. James Russell, who died in February, graduated from Northwestern School of Business and worked at Illinois Tool Works for 40 years, retiring in 1979 as the company’s CFO. He served as treasurer of the Park Ridge community in the 1950s.

The larger part of the gift—$5.4 million—will all but complete funding for the $17 million renovation of the Thomas Commons, the hub of student life on Cornell’s campus. The college administration is interviewing architects and plans to break ground in summer 2012.

Jonathan Brand, Cornell’s president, said the gift would impact every student on campus.

“The Thomas Commons is the social heart of campus,” he said. “Our students simply need more space; we are so thankful to the Russell family for allowing us to expand and improve such a central facility. Their gift further solidifies our extraordinary momentum.”

The second part of the gift—$180,000—will go toward enhancing an endowed scholarship in honor of Jean Russell, who graduated from Cornell College in 1965 and worked at Washington University in St. Louis in the Department of Medicine, the School of Dental Medicine, and the Division of Orthopedic Surgery.

Jean Russell, who lives in Pentwater, Mich., with her husband, Bob Childers, earned her Ph.D. in biology from Rice University in 1971. From then until 1993, she worked at Washington University in St. Louis, teaching and researching. She contributed significant work to bone and calcium research and was able to extend many of the medical principles concerning growth and repair in the skeleton.

Jean Russell said her father believed strongly in the importance of higher education, and passed that value down to her brother and her. James Russell attended Northwestern on a full scholarship during the Great Depression.

She said she decided to support the Thomas Commons renovation because of its importance to the future of the college. When she graduated in 1965, the building was under construction, and students ate in Pfeiffer and Bowman halls. In the more than 40 years since, the Thomas Commons has become the centerpiece of life on campus, with students dining, gathering, and studying in the building.

Jean Russell said she was glad the majority of the gift would go toward supporting the college’s highest priority. “It’s the focal point for future growth and development,” she said.