Jane Sanford and Son

History mostly remembers the Sanford name for Leland Sanford—a governor of California who was president of the Central Pacific Railroad and drove the golden spike that completed the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. And yes, his place in history is as significant as what the coast-to-coast railroad meant to the development of the nation. What history often forgets to mention is that his wife, Jane, has a stunning legacy of her own.

Leland and Jane had a marriage of love and respect; parents of a brilliant boy who bore his father’s first name and early on showed the promise of a bright future. At the age of 11, Leland Jr. built his own miniature railroad. By 15, he spoke fluent French. But on a trip to Europe with his parents, in 1884, Leland Jr. caught Tyhroid and died. His devastating parents turned their grief into action, declaring “the children of California shall be our children.”

The Sanfords met with presidents of major universities on the East Coast, seeking guidance on how to create an outstanding university. They were told it would cost $5 million to $6 million—over $120 million in today’s money. Leland turned to Jane and reportedly said, “Well, Jane, we could manage that, couldn’t we?” They did, opening Leland Sanford Junior University on October 1, 1891. Leland Sr. was presented with a silver trowel to smooth the mortar on the cornerstone. Only two years later, Leland Sr. was dead, and the state froze the assets. Jane’s advisers told her to shut down the university—as one put it, “Shut down the circus!” Jane refused. She convinced a judge to give her a monthly allowance of $10,000, and then declared the university’s professors were her servants so she could pay them out of her personal funds.

The next year, when the estate was tied up because of claims from the federal government, Jane appealed directly to president Grover Cleveland. In 1896 the Supreme Court ruled in her favor. Now that financing was assured, Jane Sanford continued developing the university that would become known as one of the most beautiful in the nation. Its law school would become legendary when one of its 1952 graduates was named to the United States Supreme Court—Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the court.

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