Take Till It Hurts

Elroy Stock writes racist letters and gives big money to little institutions. One recipient, Augsburg College, wanted to cash in without owning up.

It is a little after 11:00 a.m., and Elroy Stock has just returned home from his daily trip to the post office. "Mailed six letters today. Nothing special. My usual material," he says with a shrug, cracking open the front door to his home in Woodbury. From the outside, Stock's boxy split-level fits in seamlessly with the other contemporary homes in this growing St. Paul suburb. Inside, though, the place is frozen in time. A lifelong bachelor, Stock has lived here since 1974. Most of the furnishings appear to date from that era, from the earth-tone carpeting to the black-and-white TV with rabbit ears. The upper level is cluttered, with newspaper clippings, church bulletins, and other assorted papers stacked in piles on the dining-room table, the chairs around the dining-room table, the sofa, even the floor. But the kitchen is ground zero. Stock doesn't care to cook ("I eat mostly canned food"), so the countertops function as a sorting table. Little cardboard letter boxes are lined up in a row beside the sink, filled with photocopies of Stock's letters: marginally literate screeds with titles such as "Our problem is: the Word of God versus the Word of Satan," screeds that revolve around racial purity, Stock's primary obsession. Each day, Stock mails off his missives to people involved in interracial or interfaith marriages or who have adopted children of different ethnicities. "I just believe what is respectable and decent, and nobody else does," Stock snaps sharply. "That's why they hate me, why they want me destroyed. If everybody in this world was exactly like me, we would have an almost perfect world."

The 78-year-old Stock is hardly a sympathetic character. But he looks less like a depraved hatemonger than a grumpy old man, with just a touch of country crackpot. On this day his brown button-down dress shirt is tucked neatly into his carefully creased brown polyester slacks. His hair, white at the roots, is slicked back. His posture, like his demeanor, is rigid, as if he can't get comfortable. "This is a little bit of my history that you should know about," he says, trudging unsteadily down the half-flight of stairs to his basement office. He points to a bookshelf, where, amid a selection of 50-year-old accounting books, sits a small wooden plaque. It was presented to Stock by a group of citizens from his boyhood home of Hoffman, Minnesota, after he donated a million dollars to help them build the Messiah Lutheran Church. Dated December 9, 1990, its brass face is engraved with the words Thank You, Elroy.

In the late Eighties and early Nineties, Stock cashed in two and a half million dollars in stock options from his former employer, West Publishing, and went on a philanthropic bender. In addition to footing the lion's share of Messiah's bill, he gave a half-million dollars to build and furnish a lakefront church near Alexandria, spent another $50,000 restoring pioneer cemeteries in central Minnesota, and, in 1987, pledged a half-million dollars to his alma mater, Augsburg College.

Stock says his gift to Augsburg, at the time the largest in the history of the liberal-arts school, was his proudest moment. On the office wall there are two framed photographs of Stock and Charles Anderson, then-president of the college. The first shot was taken in 1987, just after the college announced plans to name part of a new complex on campus the Elroy M. Stock Communications Wing. It is a classic grip-and-grin, with donor and president both smiling broadly. The second snapshot was taken on October 3, 1990, at a "recognition dinner" held for Stock at Augsburg. In that photo Anderson's smile has been replaced by an expression equal parts puzzlement and distaste, like a homeowner who has just stamped out a flaming paper bag that's been left on his front stoop.

In the years between the photographs, Stock went from being a generous, albeit obscure, alumnus to a civic embarrassment. In February 1988, WCCO-TV (Channel 4) ran a story that exposed both Stock's propensity for hate mail and Augsburg's plans to name a building in his honor. The piece prompted an intense debate both on and off campus. In the wake of the first round of publicity, Augsburg's Board of Regents moved swiftly to distance the college from its suddenly unsavory donor--deciding there would no longer be an Elroy M. Stock Communications Wing. Many students and faculty at the Lutheran school wanted even stronger action. Clergy, including Mark Hanson, now the bishop of the St. Paul Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, publicly argued that the college should consider returning Stock's gift. Both the Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press weighed in with editorials supporting the college's decision to keep the cash, while excoriating Stock as "pathetic" and "vile."

Shortly thereafter the story faded and Stock clung to the hope that Augsburg would one day quietly decide to put his name back on the communications wing. After all, he did have the college's promise in writing. And, despite the public statements, he maintained a warm relationship with his old school: attending alumni events, participating in fundraising phone-a-thons, and writing out fat checks, which the college kept cashing. There was even a plaque in a hallway of the communications wing recognizing his contribution: "Major Funding By Elroy Stock." He simply bided his time, waited for the scandal to blow over, waited to be forgiven, even though, in his view, he had done nothing wrong. In 1999, with a new president installed at Augsburg, Stock figured it was finally time to press his claim on the communications wing again. To his surprise, the college rebuffed him. So on March 9, 2000, no doubt to Augsburg's surprise, Stock took the college to Hennepin County District Court, where he's suing to have the wing named in his honor or his half-million returned. Stock's suit may be a long shot, but he is once again managing to embarrass his alma mater.

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