Donald Trump unexpectedly dropped the Penn bomb earlier this month. He doesn’t do it often.
Unless you’re a Penn student or graduate well-versed in the school’s history, let’s just say his ties to Philly’s Ivy are not top-of-mind given the many other things he’s associated with, like his controversial presidential campaign, the reality show, the beauty pageant, the glossy real estate empire based mainly in New York and oh yeah, the ridiculous hair. But Trump went to Penn. He graduated from Wharton in 1968. He strolled among the rest of the students on Locust Walk to get to class like everyone else.
“I went to the Wharton School of Business,” he said in a speech in Phoenix. “I’m, like, a really smart person.”
For many famous businesspeople, college days are remembered as the last time they felt normal or inspirational points for the success they would later have. Fellow graduates remember them fondly, and they give back to their schools. That hasn’t been the case with Trump and Penn. His classmates hardly remember him (and certainly don’t remember his hair). Current students think little of his connection to their school; the university hasn’t received the type of major gifts from him other prominent graduates have given. Penn is hardly discussed in Trump biographies.
Trump’s connection is largely limited to throwaway one-liners like he gave earlier this month. Given the other remarks he’s made this summer, about Mexican immigrants and John McCain, some certainly think it’s for the better.
“Fortunately,” former classmate Terry Farrell says of The Donald’s relationship with Penn, “he doesn’t say much about it.”
The quiet guy people ‘felt sorry for’
Just like most news organizations, pundits and late-night comedians, former Trump classmates can’t resist discussing his run for president. Involved members of the class of 1968 often trade emails back and forth on a listserv, and one of the latest subjects was Trump. They dished back and forth about his campaign and any memories of him. There weren’t many. Trump, who transferred in from Fordham, didn’t stand out as a college student. Not even his hair. Classmate Ted Sachs says Trump probably combed it back like many others did at the time.
Mike Levy, a 1968 Wharton graduate, says “people remember a very low-key, easygoing guy.”
Farrell says he sat next to Trump in an introductory economics class. It might’ve been the first economics class Trump took at Penn. Farrell still has the textbook, authored by the famous economist Paul Samuelson. The only thing he remembers about Trump is his absence. Farrell says Trump never hung out at Penn because he was always going to New York City on weekends to “work like a slave for his father.”
“I felt sorry for him,” Farrell says.
“Generally he just wasn’t known,” says Barbara Russo-Bravo, a 1968 Wharton graduate and co-executive vice president of the 1968 class alumni group. “And when we’ve tried to reach out for reunions and stuff we didn’t get very far.”
Sachs is a rare 1968 Wharton graduate who interacted with Trump. He took a finance class with him and sometimes they would eat lunch, mostly at Howard Johnson’s. Sachs remembers a modest Trump. He was nothing like the brash, controversial figure he’s cultivated in the decades since.
“He was very nice,” Sachs says, “and I thought kind of quiet at that point.”
The college-aged Trump was like the famous Trump the country knows in one important characteristic: He loved real estate.
“Just down to the big toe,” Sachs says. “He was involved and followed all the real estate tycoons past and present. Really seemed to know his stuff.”
Trump first rose to prominence in the 1970s, a few years after graduating from Penn. A New York Times profile from 1973 hailed Trump as being the No. 1 student from his graduating class. This claim has been disputed on numerous occasions.
Farrell remembers someone from the economics class he had with Trump who had a photographic memory. If Trump were No. 1, he would’ve stood out. And certain people at Penn did stand out at that time; actress Candice Bergen (later, Murphy Brown on your parents’ sitcom love Murphy Brown) was a student in the late 60s.
“I was walking on a diagonal (on campus),” Farrell says, “and the guy in front of me walked into a tree because he was looking at her.”
Trump did stand out for Bergen, though. She remembers him. In a 1992 Entertainment Weekly article, she said Trump tried to ask her out on a date, and she turned him down.
“He wore a two-piece burgundy suit,” she said, “with matching patent leather burgundy boots and a matching burgundy limousine.”
Not giving back
No. 1 or not, Trump still made his fortune and achieved fame greater than any graduate after leaving Penn. His net worth to this day is debated, but it almost certainly starts with a “b,” as in billion. Very little of that money has made its way back to Penn.
A Penn spokesperson told Billy Penn the school doesn’t comment on specific donors, unless major gifts are made public. Trump has not given any of those. In the 1980s, Penn’s development office was more open about his lack of generosity toward his alma mater. A spokesman in 1987 told the Daily Pennsylvanian Trump had not been a leading contributor to Penn but had by that point, nearly two decades after his graduation, given at least $10,000. He was a member of Forbes 400 at that point, the 51st richest person in America. The only other Penn graduates inhabiting the same rarified air back then were Walter Annenberg and Saul Steinberg. Their names are scattered throughout Penn’s campus to this day.
“I don’t know why he does not support the school more,” the associate director for Wharton development, Nancy Margaral, said to the Daily Pennsylvanian in 1987. “Obviously, we want the success stories to talk about Wharton, but some people don’t.”
Trump’s involvement with Penn since graduation is mostly confined to a stint on Wharton’s Board of Overseers in the 80s. Some of his children have also attended the school, including Donald Trump Jr. and Tiffany Trump, who is listed in the Penn directory as a current sociology student. She did not return text and email messages left by Billy Penn.
Trump has visited the campus several times since his graduation. He won Wharton’s entrepreneur of the year award in 1984 and made an appearance, saying he would always contribute to the school. In 1996, he spoke to what was described as an overflow crowd and said a Wharton education could give students the confidence they would need to succeed in the real world. In 1999, he spoke at Penn with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews about a possible run for the 2000 presidency. Matthews asked the twice-divorced Trump who would be his first lady if he ran and got elected.
“I could be married in 24 hours if need be,” Trump said. “That’s what happens when you go to Wharton.”
A split from Penn
Wharton students these days attend class at a tall, circular building looking out over Walnut Street that is considered not only one of Penn’s best buildings but one of the best in the country. It’s named after Jon Huntsman, a Wharton graduate and philanthropist whose son, also a Penn graduate, ran for president as a Republican in 2012.
Wade Miller, a junior chemistry student eating lunch outside the building on a recent afternoon, says students have been talking about Trump but not really thinking about his Penn connection. It only came up in conversations, he says, when Trump discussed Penn in the recent speech. When Huntsman was running, Miller remembers thinking in high school that if he went to Penn he might get to hear a sitting president give a commencement address.
“You have to recognize him as more of a Penn graduate,” Miller says of Huntsman, “because his name’s here.”
Miller, as well as recent mechanical engineering graduate Max Wasserman, say Trump is more closely identified with the culture of Wharton than Penn overall. And Wasserman says when it comes to legitimacy on campus these days the people with scientific degrees like engineering are at the top, followed by liberal arts and then finally by the business types of Wharton.
“Saying you’re a Whartonite doesn’t give you the most respect,” Wasserman says.
Penn is a liberal school these days, Wasserman says. Sachs, the 1968 graduate who sometimes ate lunch with Trump, considers himself more conservative than likely his former classmates and the current students and faculty. He says he’s neither a supporter or a detractor of Trump but says his negotiating prowess could perhaps unlock some of the partisanship gridlocking politics the last few years. In the late 60s, he says the school had more of a conservative climate, though the students were starting to become more liberal at a time when the Vietnam War and other culture-changing events were raging.
“There was no cohesion,” Sachs says, “a lot of social splintering.”
Nearly fifty years later, as Trump continues his presidential run, his separation from Penn is apparent. He’s gone his way politically and professionally, which has also been away from Penn. Trump was never around as a student, and it hasn’t changed since he’s been an alum.
“We always kind of joked about it, how we never saw him at anything,” says Trump classmate Russo Bravo. “And now it’s kind of just as well, because who wants to be associated with him?”
Update: An earlier version of this article stated Huntsman Hall at Penn was named after Jon Huntsman, the 2012 presidential candidate. It has been changed to reflect that it was named after Huntsman’s father, Jon Huntsman.