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Leland Stanford - a railroad fortune led to founding a university

Ask most any American to name a high-rolling entrepreneur, and you're likely to hear the name "Bill Gates." The almost-legendary founder of Microsoft has garnered both admiration and distrust for his software company's worldwide dominance. And his name has increasingly prompted comparisons with movers and shakers of the past century whose big ideas and big money had a profound impact on American life - people like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Leland Stanford.

Leland Stanford?

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Stanford - a businessman, politician, and educational pioneer - was the founder, with his wife, Jane, of one of America's premier universities: Stanford University, in Stanford, Calif. But like many of his better-known businessman-turned-philanthropist brethren, his money came from big business - in this case, railroads.

His beginnings were far from grand. Born in 1824 on a farm near Albany, N.Y., the fifth of eight children, Stanford began his professional life as a lawyer.

At the age of 24, he moved to Wisconsin to set up his own law practice, and married Jane Lathrop two years later. Everything was going pretty well, but in 1852 fire destroyed his office and library.

Rather than rebuild, Stanford chose to start over in California, where he joined his brothers' mercantile business. He prospered, buying out his brothers in three years.

Thus established as a successful businessman, Stanford made his entrance into the political arena as a key organizer of California's Republican Party. After a few false starts at bids for public office, he was elected governor in 1861 and served until 1863.

During the same period, Stanford and three business partners formed the Central Pacific Railroad. The company laid track eastward to connect with the westward-bound Union Pacific - creating the first US transcontinental railroad.

But it was the death of his son, Leland Jr., in 1884 that prompted him to found Stanford University. He is credited with saying, "The children of California shall be our children," the day after his son died. Stanford and his wife founded the university in 1885 with an endowment of $20 million and a land grant. It opened for classes in 1891. The couple decided their university should be co-ed and nondenominational - unusual requirements for the times.

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