Cornell philanthropist admires modesty

Richard Small ’50 and his wife, honorary alumna Norma Thomas Small, are the most generous benefactors in Cornell College’s history. Richard built a successful oil marketing business, Cheker Oil Company, that grew to a network of more than 200 stations in 18 states. In 1984 he began a career as chairman and majority stockholder of Tri-Star Aerospace, Inc. After selling Tri-Star in 1996 he became active in oil and gas exploration in Texas. Richard was elected to the Cornell College Board of Trustees in 1971, chaired the Board from 1993 to 1996, and remains active today as a life trustee. In 2000 he received both the honorary degree Doctor of Humanities from Cornell and the United Methodist Higher Education Foundation’s Stanley S. Kresge Award for unselfish support of United Methodist higher education. The Smalls’ philanthropy to Cornell includes a $20 million challenge gift in the 1980s and contributions to virtually every major college priority over the past four decades. 

Richard Small ’50
Richard Small ’50

Q: Why is Cornell a priority for your philanthropy?
A: Attending Cornell changed my life. Cornell has always been very good but is better since One Course At A Time. Few Cornell College students have come from wealthy families, so those of us who are wealthy must do as much as possible for Cornell.

Q: What’s the most important thing you learned at Cornell?
A: Self confidence. All my life I have been motivated by memories of the Great Depression. My father did not work for several years except on the WPA (Works Progress Administration), and I vividly remember the family being evicted twice with furniture moved onto the sidewalk.

Q: How did Cornell change you?
A: Attending Cornell increased my self esteem and my confidence that I would be a success after graduating.

Q: If you could go back and tell your 20-year-old self one thing, what would it be?
A: Be careful in what you say, as spouting off got me in trouble.

Q: What person on campus had the biggest impact on you?
A: Paul Scott ’29. I accomplished nothing as a high school athlete. At Cornell I felt my only chance for a letter was as a manager, so I managed the cross country team coached by Paul Scott. I did not get a letter but at the end of the season Scott suggested I come out for wrestling; the team that year won both the NCAA and AAU championships. In 1949 I won the Midwest Conference title at 165 pounds, of which I am very proud. Of course Scotty introduced me to Norma Thomas, who at that time in 1974 was alumni office manager. It changed our lives forever.

Q: Who are your favorite authors?
A: Many writers of historical events. Presently I am reading “Inside the Third Reich” by Albert Speer.

Q: Where would you most like to live or visit?
A: I have enjoyed living in Tulsa since 1992. Norma and I have enjoyed cruising to places like South America, Antarctica, the Mediterranean, Alaska, the Black Sea, the Baltics, and there are more cruises we are looking forward to.

Q: What quality do you most admire in others?
A: Modesty.

Q: What makes you happiest?
A: Reading history with my dog Teddi at my side. She is an Iowa dog.