Gilbert J. C. McCurdy

Interviewee: McCurdy, Gilbert J. C.
Interviewer: End, Jack
Duration: 14 minutes
Date: ca. 1971


Biographical note: Gilbert J.C. McCurdy (1895-1978) was a member of the Board of Trustees from 1941 to 1965, and was named an Honorary Trustee in 1965. A notable figure in the history of Rochester as a whole, not just the University, he inherited his family's retail business, the famous McCurdy's department store, founded by his father John Cooke McCurdy in 1901. Gilbert McCurdy went on to develop Midtown Plaza in the late 1950s. His son Gilbert G. McCurdy (1922-2010) was also a member of the UR Board of Trustees. The McCurdys generously funded the Interfaith Chapels in both the University's Medical Center and on the River Campus.

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JE: Mr. McCurdy, although you did not attend the University of Rochester, you have shown an exceptional interest in its activities for a good many years. What causes a man with so many other important responsibilities to take the time and effort to work as hard as you have for the University?

GM: That gets back to people. For a great many years, many of them before I became a member of the Board, I have known and respected some of the chief executive officers of the University. For example, President Rush Rhees[1] whom I have know... had known since I was a boy, always impressed me as being a man not only of the highest character, but of distinguished ability. And as we all know, it was during his presidency that the University of Rochester began to move from a small college to toward the great University that it is today. Along with President Rhees, I should like to mention during that early period, Raymond N. Ball[2], who came to the University as Alumni Secretary and also secretary to President Rhees. And soon became Treasurer and Financial Vice-President later on of the University. It was Ray Ball who had the major business responsibility during the period when George Eastman enabled the University to open the School of Music, the Eastman Theatre, and, along with the General Education Board, enabled the University to open the School of Medicine and Dentistry. The also... the business end of the move to the River Campus, move of the men's college to the River Campus. These two men, I-I had the greatest respect for both of them during those early days.

Then I suppose my next contact of importance with the University came when in 1935, Alan Valentine became President of the University[3] and it was my privilege to welcome him to Rochester on behalf of the business community. It was during Alan Valentine's tenure as President that I became a member of the Board of the University, and I well remember those days and also the various chairmen of the Board who have come along, each of them in my memory associated with the various Presidents. Herbert Eisenhart[4], for whom I have the highest regard, served as Chairman of the Board during Alan Valentine's day.

And he was succeeded, as we all recall by Cornelis de Kiewiet[5]. And I was one of those chosen to search for a President to succeed Alan Valentine, and I believe that committee went to work in a systematic manner. We took into account the various possibilities within the University itself. And greatly to my surprise, we found that there was really no one on the staff of the University – among the deans or other administrators who was ambitious to become President of the University. This surprised me because I believe in most any business organization we would've found the opposite to be true. We would no doubt have had not one but perhaps several aspirants for the higher office. However the committee broadened its search, of course, from the very beginning and if I may refer again to Ray Ball, I believe it was Ray who perhaps with several others visited Cornell University, where Dr. de Kiewiet was then serving in the interim capacity as head of the institution, and he was persuaded to come to Rochester as the new President.

JE: One of the most beautiful buildings, and certainly one of the most appreciated buildings, on our campus is the Interfaith Chapel, given to the University by Mrs. McCurdy and yourself[6]. What prompted you and Mrs. McCurdy to contribute this wonderful addition to the University of Rochester?

GM: Now this is a story that goes back a long while[7]. ... during my own education, I had the privilege of attending an excellent private school, the Hills School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania[8], where there was an Alumni Chapel to which came Sunday after Sunday some of the outstanding preachers in the nation. Later on I attended Williams College[9], where again, some of the best-known and most respected preachers in the entire nation came to the Thompson Memorial Chapel Sunday after Sunday.

When we looked at the University of Rochester, it seemed to us that there was something very important that was lacking. The University lacked a chapel. And it was a number of years ago, during Dr. de Kiewiet's tenure as President, that Mrs. McCurdy and I determined that if in any way possible we wanted to create for the University a chapel that would speak for itself, a chapel that is – which would indicate, by its very structure, the purpose of the building, this we have tried to do and I believe – with the help of the architects[10], designers – we have succeeded more perhaps than we could have foretold[11].

JE: Well, I'm sure that you certainly have and it's greatly appreciated by everyone connected with the University. Um, one of your major interests in the University has been in the School of Medicine and Dentistry[12]. Do you think this school has been advancing in proper directions?

GM: Of course, this is an area in which I am by no means expert. My contacts have been primarily with, again, with certain individuals who have influenced my judgment, I'm sure. Among these, of course, was Dr. Whipple[13] and Dr. McCann[14]. And one for whom I have very high respect: Dr. Lawrence Kohn[15], now retired. Also Dr. Snell[16] in the Department of Ophthalmology.And Dr. Anderson[17], formerly the Dean of the School of Medicine. Dr. Orbison[18], and many others. People, as I've indicated before, make all the difference. And from knowing the people, we have come to have a very high regard for the School of Medicine.

JE: At one time you were chairman of the Investment Committee of the Board of Trustees[19]. In what way does this committee function in relation to the investment officers of the University administration?

GM: The Investment Committee has been concerned during my knowledge of its functions, primarily with the approval of policies rather than the details of investments. The University throughout this period has had a very able investment staff. And this staff has brought to the Investment Committee and its periodic meetings first of all, the basic policies which have controlled their operations. Secondly, the details of their operations, which have been approved from time to time. But the Committee, as I say, has been concerned more with general policy and not with detail[20].

JE: The cost of operating a University keeps rising. And there seems to be no end in sight. Now what do you think the outcome is going to be. Is there a solution?

GM: Of course there has to be a solution. The problem is highlighted perhaps by the fact that in recent years the increase in the annual budget has succeeded the total budget, at the time of my first election to the Board of Trustees. This is, um, a little difficult to understand perhaps, but on the other hand the University in recent years has come under the influence and guidance of the President, now the Chancellor, Allen Wallis[21], who came in at a time when the University was ripe for major steps forward. He has taken full advantage, as far as I can see, of the opportunities to build upon the very solid foundations which he found here an institution second to none throughout the country in many respects, and with the opportunity of becoming second to none in all respects within the foreseeable future. The policies, the financial policies, which have been adopted recently by the Board of Trustees must, I am sure, be of a fairly temporary nature. And I believe that this will be entirely possible so that, once again, the building process, as far as the financial foundations are concerned, may go on in the future as in the past.

JE: Thank you, Mr. McCurdy.

[recording ends]

Transcript by Eileen L. Fay (March 2014)

[1] The third President of the University, from 1900-35.

[2] Raymond N. Ball was a member of the Class of 1914. His long career at UR included duties as Treasurer and Chairman of the Board of Trustees.

[3] 1935-50.

[4] M. Herbert Eisenhart, Chairman of the Board of Trustees from 1945 to 1952, succeeding Edward G. Miner.

[5] Cornelis de Kiewiet succeeded Alan Valentine as President of the University in 1951 and served until 1961.

[6] Gilbert and Virginia (Geier) McCurdy donated the funds for construction of the Interfaith Chapel and guided the design process. It opened in 1970.

[7] The idea for a campus chapel actually originated with Robert Beaven, the University Chaplain from 1957 to 1970. He conceived of a space not only for worship but also "where theology could be brought to life." (source: "The Interfaith Chapel Celebrates 30 Years, 1970-2000")

[8] Class of 1913.

[9] Class of 1917.

[10] The architects were Walter Vars Wiard, William O. Burwell, and Raymond E. Ashley.

[11] "Gilbert McCurdy, a University trustee, and his wife, Virginia, were deeply religious people who felt there was a need for a beautiful, natural and comfortable place on the Rochester campus where students, faculty and staff could have religious association. Their idea was for a chapel that would give visual evidence of the whole person. A passage from the scriptures, selected by Gilbert McCurdy early in the project, perhaps best describes the distinctive nature and purpose of the Interfaith Chapel as the McCurdy's envisioned it, ‘…Mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.' The building was to be a multi-faith community; a place of prayer for all. This passage is inscribed over the Chapel doors and remains abold [sic] statement and vision bold commitment [sic] for diversity." (from "The Interfaith Chapel Celebrates 30 Years, 1970-2000")

[12] Mr. and Mrs. McCurdy made substantial gifts to the Medical Center and established a clinical teaching fellowship in the Department of Medicine in honor of Dr. Lawrence A. Kohn. (source: McCurdy obituary in Currents, July 21, 1978)

[13] Dr. George Whipple was appointed Dean of the University of Rochester Medical Center in 1921. He won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1934 for a discovery that led to successful treatment of pernicious anemia, which was previously fatal. His papers are available in Miner Library.

[14] Dr. William S. McCann arrived at the brand-new Medical Center as a professor of internal medicine. In 1928 he became the first Charles A. Dewey Professor of Medicine.

[15] Dr. Lawrence A. Kohn was picked by McCann to join the Department of Medicine due his experience in bacteriology. He became Clinical Professor of Medicine Emeritus in 1962. Dr. Kohn's papers are available in Miner Library.

[16] Dr. Albert C. Snell, Sr. organized the Division of Ophthalmology in 1929. His son Dr. Albert C. Snell, Jr. was head of the Division of Ophthalmology from 1961 to 1978. (source:

[17] Dr. Donald Grigg Anderson was dean of the School of Medicine and Dentistry from 1953 to 1966, succeeding founding dean Dr. Whipple. Anderson remained on the SMD faculty and staff of Strong Memorial Hospital after his retirement, serving as Professor of Psychiatry until 1978. His papers are available in Miner Library.

[18] Dr. James Lowell Orbison came to the UR Medical Center in 1955. He was appointed the first George Hoyt Whipple Professor of Pathology, succeeding Dr. Whipple as chairman of the department. He succeeded Dr. Anderson as dean in 1967 and retired in 1979. Dr. Orbison was notable for developing the cancer center, expanding the psychiatric wing, and completing the construction of the new Strong Memorial Hospital. (source:

[19] McCurdy was on the Investment Committee from 1974-76. He also served on the Building and Grounds Committee (1948-52), the Nominating Committee (1950-54), and the Finance Committee (1951-65). (source: Currents obituary)

[20] From the Oral History interview of Mercer Brugler, former chairman of the Board of Trustees, explaining the role of the Board: "So those broad policy matters are concerns of the trustees. And the trustees' function is large – to a large extent fiduciary, it's our function as trustees to safeguard the assets of the University, to be sure that it's in sound and solid and healthy condition financially and then supplement that by efforts to raise money to be sure that the University has a source of incoming funds. And those broad ma – those broad, wide policy decisions and activities are really what the trustees are supposed to do, and not to administer the University."

[21] W. Allen Wallis succeeded de Kiewiet as President of the University from 1962 to 1970. He was then named Chancellor of the University, a post unique to him which he held until 1978. He served alongside Dr. Robert Sproull, who was President from 1970 to 1984. Wallis's papers are available in Special Collections.

Gilbert J. C. McCurdy