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.

In 1987, on Elroy Stock's 64th birthday, the postal inspectors reappeared, this time at West Publishing, to once again question Stock about his mailings. When management at the company found out about their cashier's secret hobby, he was given an ultimatum: Take early retirement or be fired. Stock resisted and was terminated on the spot. But Stock says that was nothing compared to what happened a year later. Two days after WCCO ran their story about Stock, Augsburg president Charles Anderson summoned the philanthropic alum to his office. The college's communications wing would no longer bear his name. "I broke down in tears right then," Stock remembers, "I said, 'Don't do anything. We don't know what's going on out there.' But he wouldn't listen to me." It didn't help, Stock acknowledges, that he had sent letters to Anderson's son, who had married a black woman.


In the summer of 1999, St. Paul attorney Thomas Montgomery received a phone call from Stock, who was looking for an attorney to take on Augsburg. At first Montgomery was ambivalent. A journalist-turned-lawyer, Montgomery had friends who had received Stock's mailings, and he knew what effect the bizarre missives could have on their unsuspecting recipients. "I told Elroy from day one, 'I will never defend your views. I want nothing to do with your views, and I'm gonna tell that to anyone who asks,'" Montgomery says. "Elroy wasn't real happy with that." But Stock had kept detailed records of all his communication with Augsburg, including a diary of conversations with administrators and fundraisers from the college. As Montgomery pored over the history, he came to believe he had the makings of a winnable case.

Ryan Kelly

In 1986 Stock, who had been a steady contributor to Augsburg since the mid-Sixties, agreed to pledge a total of $500,000 toward the construction of a $6 million building, featuring a chapel, a theater, and a communications center. Dubbed the Foss Center, it would be the cornerstone of a decadelong effort to modernize the school's tiny, 24-acre campus, which sits in the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis shadow. In a letter to Stock dated September 10, 1986, Jeroy Carlson, then Augsburg's senior development officer, wrote that the half-million-dollar pledge "would involve the college recognizing your right to designate this pledge to name 'The Elroy M. Stock Communications Wing.'" In Montgomery's view, Carlson's letter amounts to a contract, one the college can't revoke simply because it dislikes Stock's behavior.

What's more telling, Montgomery argues, is that while the college tried to stave off bad publicity by calling Stock out, it continued to cultivate him as a donor. As evidence, Montgomery cites a recognition dinner held for Stock on the Augsburg campus in October 1989, which was publicized in neither the school newspaper nor alumni newsletter. In July of 1989, the college sent another letter to Stock promising that a plaque denoting his donation would be placed at the "entrance" of the communications wing. "Elroy, I hope you will allow Augsburg College to honor you in this way. You are one of our most generous benefactors, and your support means a great deal to us," read the note. (As it turns out, the plaque was eventually hung. But, Montgomery observes, it's stuck in a back hallway frequented only by those entering the television studio.)

"Augsburg's attitude was, 'Let's just mollify him; then he won't pursue his claim,'" Montgomery says. "So they just took his money, and continued to take his money." In fact, the college accepted just shy of $18,000 from Stock in the ten years following his disgrace. It took until 1999 for William Frame, Augsburg's current president, to decide the college would no longer accept his donations--a pronouncement, Montgomery notes, that came only after Stock made it clear he would press his naming-rights claim.

Dan Jorgensen, Augsburg's public-relations director, says the pending lawsuit prevents him and the school's administrators from commenting on their dealings with Stock. Eric Jorstad, the attorney representing Augsburg, declines to comment specifically on why the college continued accepting Stock's donations, then suddenly stopped. Jorstad says he plans to submit a motion asking for summary dismissal of Stock's lawsuit in the next few months. Among other things, Jorstad argues that the letter from Augsburg to Stock does not constitute a contract. "This alleged contract is not a contract," Jorstad contends. "Mr. Stock did not buy the right to have a building named after him. He made a charitable contribution--a donation, an unrestricted, unconditional donation to the college, for the college's purposes. And it's charitable contribution law, not contract law, that applies." The naming of the wing, Jorstad argues, is "incidental to the donation." (Montgomery scoffs at the suggestion. "Incidental? Does that mean if you or I give $50 to Augsburg, we'll get a building named after us?")

In Jorstad's view, Stock has other major legal hurdles to clear as well, including a statute of limitations that, under typical civil procedure, dictates that Stock should have sued no later than 1996. Montgomery contends that the college's "continuing misrepresentations" void that limit. "They would send back thank-you notes from the president, handwritten, saying [Elroy's] one of the best friends Augsburg has ever had," Montgomery argues. "If Augsburg didn't want to be associated with Elroy, fine. I can see that. But should they get to keep his money and lie to him?" Stock was unsophisticated in his dealings with Augsburg, Montgomery admits. But if Hennepin County Judge Delilah Pierce decides the case should be tried, Stock's lawyer believes that will automatically bolster his case, because contract law is "designed to favor the weaker or less sophisticated party."

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