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Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

Professor Receives Unexpected Windfall From Former Student

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs
Posted April 19, 2000

Alan Dundes

Alan Dundes hopes to use portions of the $1 million gift he received to preserve the extensive folklore archive in his office.

It started with a mysterious phone call to the anthropology department. The caller, a former student, wanted to confirm that Alan Dundes was still teaching folklore at Berkeley, and make a gift to the university in his honor.

"The receptionist told me I may be receiving a letter with a check enclosed," said Dundes. "But as a folklorist, I don't believe much of what I hear, especially something like 'the check's in the mail.' "

Yet, a letter and check did arrive a few weeks later, and Dundes, without really thinking about it, gave it to his wife to open.

"She read some of the letter to me, and it was very nice," said Dundes. "He said I helped enlighten him."

Then she saw the enclosed check and told Dundes it was for $1,000. "I was very pleased," he said.

"No, wait, I think I read it wrong," she said. "There are more zeros than I thought."

Three more zeros to be exact, bringing the actual total of the personal check to a cool $1 million.

"I started yelling and screaming," said Dundes. "I'd never seen anything like this before."

Dundes rushed to the UC Berkeley Foundation office, which handles gifts to the university, fearful he might lose the check if he held on to it any longer than necessary. "I didn't want to take any chances," said a beaming Dundes.

Once the check was secure, Dundes called the donor and thanked him profusely. After a few minutes of conversation, he remembered the former student, one of the first Dundes taught upon his arrival at Berkeley in the early sixties. He also recalled writing a letter of recommendation for the student.

It's not every day that a professor receives such a sizable gift for teaching. But it's also unusual for an instructor to have such an impact on a student's life.

"I was influenced by you in ways I didn't expect," the donor said in his letter to Dundes. "I use what I learned in your anthropology classes almost everyday of my life."

"I feel proud and honored that this fellow would remember me," gushed Dundes. "I've taught thousands of students, but you never really know if you're getting through."

The windfall couldn't have come at a better time, according to Dundes.

As he nears retirement, Dundes was concerned about the future of folklore studies on campus. He is the only full-time folklore professor at Berkeley and worried that the discipline might disappear once he leaves.

But the gift -- given to the university and allocated by Dundes -- solves that problem.

"Thanks to this generous donation, the future of the field is safe," said Dundes. "To know that folklore will be taught at Berkeley for generations to come makes me very happy."

The money will be used to fund an endowment for a Distinguished Professorship of Folkloristics, believed to be the first of its kind in the country.

The professorship will help support an endowed chair, graduate student fellowships and the folklore archive, which houses several hundred thousand folklore items, collected by students over the years.

"This is a stunning tribute to an extraordinary professor and the program he has created," said George Breslauer, dean of Social Sciences in the College of Letters & Science. "It is precisely the kind of support that helps us renew the foundations of excellence at Cal."

As news of Dundes' gift traveled, he received congratulatory phone calls from colleagues across the globe.

"Folklore is not considered to be a very prestigious area of research. We don't get a lot of respect," said Dundes, sounding a little like Rodney Dangerfield. "This gift is a validation for all of us who study folklore, we are all basking in the collective light this gift has shone on us."




April 19-26, 2000 (Volume 28, Number 29)
Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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