Claim: University implements mandatory swim tests at the behest of a wealthy benefactor whose own child had drowned.
Example: [Collected on the Internet, 1993]
A similar story exists about Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Supposedly a female student in the 1930’s drowned, and her excessively rich parents donated a grant to the school which provides all kinds of student activities funds (including ice cream at every lunch and dinner, perhaps an attempt to make everyone more buoyant?) on the condition that all students pass a swim test before graduation.
NB: there are always one or two students every year who blow off their swim test, and indeed, they do not graduate.
- This legend is told about a number of schools, mostly prominent, long-established private universities in the Northeast.
- Some versions of the legend claim that the school to which the legend applies is unique in requiring a swim test of its students.
- Sometimes the wealthy benefactor’s contribution is said to have been used specifically for the construction of a swimming pool; sometimes the money is said to have been used to fund something else (such as a library) or not to have been donated for any specific project.
Origins: Many colleges and universities in the United
States have required their students to pass swim tests prior to graduation. Although most of them have since either dropped the requirement or no longer enforce it, some universities still insist on it. Requiring graduates to pass a swim test seems to have originated about the time of World
This legend, however, concerns a swim test requirement imposed not for health or safety reasons, but because it was demanded by a wealthy benefactor who had suffered the misfortune of losing a loved one to drowning. The tale is frequently told in connection with Eleanor Elkins Widener, the widow of a wealthy Philadelphia tramway heir, who endowed Harvard University with a large sum of money for establishment of a library. The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library,
Harvard’s flagship library, opened in 1915 and was named in honor of Mrs. Widener’s son Harry, a 1907 Harvard graduate and bibliophile who died along with his father George when the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage in 1912.
Mrs. Widener’s name is also attached to some other “unusual benefactor request” legends, such as the claims that she donated millions of dollars on the condition that the Freshman Union serve
Whatever the reason behind the swim test requirements, schools took them quite seriously.
Last updated: 9 June 2011
Bernstein, Richard. “For 7,300 at Columbia, A Day Full of Balloons and Diplomas.” The New York Times. 18 May 1983 (p. B1). Conconi, Chuck. “Style; Personalities.” The Washington Post. 18 May 1983 (p. B#). Mann, Elizabeth. “The First Abridged Dictionary of Harvard Myths.” The Harvard Independent. 9 December 1993 (pp. 10-11). Mooney, Carolyn J. “Swim or Sink.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 12 October 1994 (pp. 35-36).