Ralph Voorhees was born in 1835 and lived in a rural area on a farm where he grew up. His father was apparently quite well off. He sang in the church choir and it was there that he met his future wife, Elizabeth Rodman [1842-1924]. Both were involved with the choir and a friendship developed during their younger years.
After they had developed a strong relationship, Ralph developed an eye infection and sought medical advice. Unfortunately, in the 1850’s medical care was still very primitive. Apparently whatever the physicians tried to cure his eye disease, it was futile, and he became blind in both eyes.
Ralph’s blindness did not affect his relationship with Elizabeth and may have made it stronger. After a long courtship they decided to prepare for marriage. Unfortunately a barrier had emerged. Ralph’s father who was by then a widower opposed the marriage because he needed Ralph, his or his only remaining child at home, to live with and care for him.
Elizabeth on the other hand had inherited a small fortune from her wealthy father and was independently wealthy. She did not see any objections to being married to a blind person, a person she loved. They decided to wait with the marriage until Ralph’s father passed away, which did not occur until 1887, when Ralph was 52 years old and Elizabeth was 45. Needless to say it was a long engagement.
Following their wedding they decided to move to the village of Clinton, New Jersey. The village apparently was an easy village for Ralph to move around in without having to depend on assistance from others. He apparently was quite comfortable and there are reports that the locals were amazed at how he was able to maneuver through the village doing his shopping and running errands.
Following his father’s death, Ralph had also inherited a small fortune so the couple obviously did not have any financial problems. Also following their marriage, Elizabeth was notified that she had become the sole heir to her uncle’s fortune which was even larger than the one she had inherited from her own father.
The couple then decided that they had to manage their wealth in a responsible way and decided to become philanthropists so they could utilize their wealth for worthwhile causes. They decided that education was an important area they wanted to support, and especially women’s education.
Two of their important gifts were for educational schools which became colleges and were both named Voorhees College. One is located in Denmark, South Carolina and is a liberal arts college for black students. It was founded in 1902 with an initial $5,000 gift which was later increased.
The other college was the Elizabeth Voorhees College, founded in 1898 and is located in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, India. It is now affiliated with Thiruvalluvar University, also located in Vellore. Both colleges are accredited colleges, are currently functioning and their activities can be explored through a web search.
The largest donation was the balance in Elizabeth’s bank account at the end of her life and amounted to $1.6 million. The recipient was the New Jersey College for Women, now known as Douglas College at Rutgers University. Apparently the University used some of the funds to build a chapel in 1925 and named it the Voorhees Chapel. Note that Elizabeth passed away in 1924. Ralph had predeceased her in 1907. Earlier the Voorhees’s had donated $ 75,000 to Rutgers for a library which is now known as the Voorhees Library.
While Voorhees was still alive he decided he wanted to share some of his wealth with his nephews. Ralph and Elizabeth were childless since they had married too late in life. He gave $ 10,000 to each of several nephews. Included in the group was Foster McGowan Voorhees who later became Governor of New Jersey.
Following Ralph Voorhees’s death, Elizabeth continued distributing the money in their estate. Three significant gifts were for $ 100,000 each to Lafayette College, Pennsylvania, Huron College, South Dakota and Hope College, Holland, Michigan. A still larger gift was made to Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin. It amounted to $ 70,000 for a general endowment, $ 20,000 for a library endowment and $ 100,000 for three campus buildings consisting of the Elizabeth Voorhees Dormitory for Womem, the Rankin Hall of Science, and Voorhees College. Numerous smaller gifts were distributed to other needy colleges.
Ralph Voorhees passed away in 1907 when he was approaching the age of 70. Elizabeth outlived him by 17 years. She passed away in 1924 at the age of 82. Despite Ralph’s blindness, and despite having to wait many years for their marriage, the couple led a productive life together distributing their wealth to well thought- out, fruitful and productive causes. Their memory is still alive today with two functioning liberal arts colleges as well as major gifts to three other liberal arts colleges and their memory is still strong at Rutgers University, New Jersey’s major University.
“Ralph Voorhees Dead: Blind Philanthropist of Clinton, New Jersey, Gave Great Sums to Education”, New York Times, April 5, 1907
Ralph and Elizabeth Voorhees, reports of their gifts can be found at several web sites.
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