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.

 

Elroy Stock grew up in a world where nearly everyone he came into contact with was white, and most were Lutheran. The eldest of four children growing up on a farm in Hoffman, Stock's lifelong preoccupation with "racial and religious preservation" began early. As Stock tells it, he first became worried about the future of "his people" after the local farm-implement dealership fell into the hands of a Catholic--the results of an interfaith marriage. After graduating high school, Stock went to work at an aircraft factory in Southern California, welding wing tips on bomber planes, then served the navy during World War II, with stints at bases in Rhode Island and California. After his discharge, he returned to Minnesota and enrolled at Augsburg, which Stock calls a "a poor man's college." In 1949, after an undistinguished academic career, Stock received his degree in business administration.

Following graduation he went to work as an accountant for West Publishing. And save for a handful of trips to neighboring states, Stock never again left Minnesota. A xenophobic farm boy in the big city, he just stayed close to home and worried about integration. "After the war, everything was getting mixed up. I saw it happening to my own people," Stock, who was initially most concerned about Lutheran girls marrying Catholic boys, reminisces. In the early 1950s, Joseph Zacchello, a Catholic priest turned Protestant, traveled to St. Paul to renounce the Catholic Church and the pope. Stock was impressed with Zacchello's address, and he quickly ordered copies of the speaker's booklets, which he decided to distribute anonymously. From the beginning Stock was secretive about his beliefs. He would scan the daily newspapers for marriage announcements. If he discovered that a Lutheran was marrying outside of the faith, he would mail them one of Zacchello's booklets. There was never a return address and Stock never told a soul what he was doing. "I knew they would run me down," he explains now, paranoid about no one in particular. "I didn't want to be categorized. I knew they'd run me down."

Stock had been mailing out the pamphlets for nearly 20 years when Zacchello died and the supply dried up. In the meantime, Stock began to develop his "belief story." In the wake of the civil-rights movement, a higher number of African Americans were making their way to Minnesota. Stock decided that this too was a threat to his heritage. "The colored men thought they had the right to date white girls. I saw that as wrong. And when I saw those girls getting pregnant, that's when my new mission started," Stock explains. The short, self-penned letters that Stock began to mail anonymously in the early Seventies were informed by a growing obsession to preserve what he still calls "family religious, family racial, and family biological heritage." They were dotted with scriptural references, civic exclamations about the Constitution, and newspaper clips.

Over the years Stock gave up the hope of having a family of his own. As a young man he fell in love once, but there was "too much competition." To this day, Stock claims with a distinctly guileless pride that he remains "a virgin bachelor": "My whole body is loaded with love for a woman. But I'm fussy: won't marry a different religion; won't marry a woman of a different heritage. I like beauty in a woman. My kind of beauty. I just can't stand hair on a woman's legs or arms or stuff like that. It just turns me off." Despite his lack of hands-on experience, the subject of sex permeates Stock's screeds. He writes that "sinful man destroyed God's Human races through sex relations with other races" and blames problems from world hunger to national debt on infidelity. He draws no distinction between homosexual and heterosexual adultery, however. And while he is pro-life, he cautions against outlawing abortion because it will only hasten the return of "the back alley butcher."

While working his way up West Publishing's corporate ladder (finally climbing to the position of head cashier), Stock dedicated his free time to his belief story, often rising in the early morning to send out a stack of mail. "I had plenty of work to do," he says. "I would fill grocery sacks with mail. I just kept working and working." He is not sure how many letters he has sent, or to how many people--hundreds of thousands at least, he guesses, maybe a half-million. He did little else. "I've lived a frugal life," he boasts. "Never taken a trip since World War II. I never married, so I never had anybody pushing me around."

In 1982 postal inspectors began receiving complaints about Stock's mailings, which were still unsigned. By 1986 there were hundreds of complaints, and the letters were finally traced back to Woodbury. According to Todd Johnson, a sergeant with the Woodbury Police Department, when investigators arrived at Stock's home, he refused to let them through the door and made no direct admissions. The entire time, though, Stock inquired anxiously whether he had broken any laws. As it turned out, he had not, even though Woodbury Police Chief Greg Orth says the department seriously examined the possibility. "We contacted the county attorney and the city attorney, and they called the attorney general, and they all said, 'No, what he's doing is not illegal. He's not threatening people. He's not trying to get money out of them. And he's not harassing them,'" Orth explains. (These days, when someone complains to the Woodbury police about Stock, they are issued a standard form letter in which Chief Orth lets it be known the department considers Stock "eccentric but harmless.")

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.

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."

While there have been plenty of court cases where donors have sued to recover their gifts, those suits usually revolve around claims that the money was misspent. Jorstad allows that there is scant precedence for Stock's claim. So, should there be a trial, the Augsburg lawyer is considering a host of strategies. Under one broad legal principle, known as the doctrine of unclean hands, for instance, Jorstad says he can argue that the court should deny Stock's claim on the grounds that "it would be unfair to give a half a million dollars to someone who has harmed so many human beings." Jorstad could also make the claim that forcing the college to name a building after Stock would violate the school's Lutheran values, and thus its First Amendment right to freedom of religion. Or Jorstad could simply argue that Stock essentially waived his right to sue by accepting the honors Augsburg did confer on him. "Even if there was a contract, and even if it was breached, which the college denies, Augsburg and Stock reached a resolution: the plaque and the dinner," Jorstad insists. "He can't just call that into question 12 years later."

 

At Augsburg, the Elroy Stock affair no longer elicits much of a reaction from the student body. Boyd Koehler, Augsburg's former affirmative-action officer and current advisor to the school's newspaper, says he doubts more than one in ten students have even heard Stock's name. But Koehler, who is in an interracial marriage and still occasionally receives Stock's screeds in the mail, says he is disappointed that the college continued soliciting and accepting money from Stock. Koehler remembers being recruited to play piano at a 1998 campus fundraiser where he was, to his chagrin, seated next to Stock. "Given our Christian mission to diversity, I was stunned to learn that we were still accepting money from Elroy even though we knew that he was still sending out hate mail," Koehler says. "I just find it bizarre that Augsburg was that desperate." All things considered, Koehler contends, it would have been best if the college had simply severed all associations with the donor. "I can even understand, logically, why Elroy is suing," he allows. "I don't think Augsburg came through on its end of the bargain."

Vivian Jenkins Nelson, a former Augsburg faculty member and the director of Inter-Race, a nonprofit think tank set up to encourage diversity education, believes Augsburg should return "every dime" Stock donated in the years following his exposure. After starting her career as one of Augsburg's first black administrators in the late Sixties, Jenkins Nelson, who is married to a white man, also received Stock's anonymous salvos. "I would get it at home, at work. It would follow me from job to job," she says of the letters, which popped up in her mailbox in 1975 and sporadically for the next 13 years. "Even though he never threatened me directly, it was scary, because I had no idea who was sending it." In 1988, after Stock was exposed, Jenkins Nelson sued him for intentional infliction of emotional harm; the case was settled out of court that same year, with Stock agreeing to pay $5,000 to the Minnesota Council of Non-Profits. (Jenkins Nelson also testified on behalf of West Publishing when Stock unsuccessfully sued his former employer to get his job back.) Stock has remained a curiously potent force in Jenkins Nelson's profession life. While at Harvard on a Bush Fellowship, she used the Stock case as a basis for research into the question of how colleges and other nonprofit institutions should deal with donations from suspect quarters. After interviewing fundraisers and administrators across the country, Jenkins Nelson says the consensus was clear: "Everybody said, 'Walk away; don't shake hands with the devil.'"

It's rare for colleges and universities to return suspect donations, but not unheard-of. One of the best-known examples involved a $20 million endowment to Yale University in 1995 from the conservative Texas billionaire Lee Bass. In that case, Bass had put strings on his donation, requiring the endowment be used only to fund a Western-civilization curriculum that faculty and students on the campus already regarded as adequate. "Sensitive donor situations are never easy. You take the information you have at your disposal, and eventually an institution has to take a stand," says Trish Jackson, vice president of the Council for Advancement in Support of Education, a D.C.-based nonprofit that provides fundraising advice to colleges and universities. More often than not, Jackson concedes, institutions will take the black eye and keep the cash in hand. As the old saying goes: "The only problem with tainted money is 'tain't never enough."

For her part, Jenkins Nelson believes Augsburg's decision to continue accepting money from Stock was wrong for reasons that go beyond bad publicity. In her view, Stock is not competent to give away his money. "Elroy has sent his letters to kids in hospitals, kids who are ill. Is that the behavior of somebody normal?" she asks rhetorically. "I don't think so. And when somebody demonstrates that they are impaired in some way--and this kind of hatred is a real impairment--I don't think we should be taking money from them." Ironically, in the wake of Stock's exposure, then-president Charles Anderson offered Jenkins Nelson a building on campus to house Inter-Race; it has been there ever since.

Others who have spoken up against Stock have fared less well--especially those who live in his hometown. For years Hoffman resident Susan Arnquist regularly received Stock's mailings. It began in 1979, when she and her husband adopted a Korean-American infant. After the local paper printed her baptismal notice, Arnquist says Stock sent the family an anti-adoption diatribe. At the time Stock was not signing his letters, and the couple initially suspected a neighbor. In 1988, after Stock's letter-writing campaign became public, Arnquist complained to leaders of her church, Messiah Lutheran, to whom Stock had already pledged a million dollars. Arnquist's family had donated the land for the new building, and she believed the project would be tainted by Stock's involvement. When she urged her fellow parishioners to send Stock and his money packing, though, there was little sympathy: Disgusted, Arnquist left Messiah. In the years since, Arnquist has tried to keep the issue alive, mostly by writing letters to local newspapers and lobbying other institutions, including the Luther Crest Bible Camp (which received $500,000 from Stock), to stop accepting his money. In the end, Arnquist's efforts have served only to alienate her from her fellow townspeople and, she says, even her husband, from whom she was recently divorced: "The majority of people just blew me off. They took his money with open arms. And he's never been shunned from the community. Nobody asked him to be held accountable for his actions. And the fact is, they're still willing to take money from him."

Steve Olson, the current pastor at Messiah, declines to discuss the matter, saying he doesn't want to jeopardize his "ongoing conversation with Elroy." But Berdell Skogstad, the former church-council president, says "only a very, very few" church members favored shunning Stock or returning his money. "Elroy has a right to his opinions," Skogstad says. "The money that he donated was earned honestly, no cheating or anything, and he wanted to put it to a good use. He has done an awful lot of good for the community. To me, it's never been very much of a concern."

Now that he has become notorious--and since he began signing his name to his own mailings in 1988--Elroy Stock occasionally receives letters from strangers; some are critical, others are supportive. For instance, a 21-year-old college student from George Mason University, who identified himself as an aide to South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, wrote to request financial help. Stock declined. A Lutheran pastor from Owatonna wrote to protest his views. Stock ignored him.

Given his limited success with the judicial system, Stock is not especially optimistic about his chances in the Augsburg matter. He figures he spent at least a quarter-million dollars fighting his dismissal from West Publishing. He lost. He then sued an attorney who represented him in the case. He lost. And then there's the $5,000 it cost to make Jenkins Nelson go away. "I think I'm gonna be dead broke after the Augsburg College lawsuit. I'm really getting down," he says. Still, he doesn't mind the thought of spending the remainder of his fortune in a legal battle. With no children, his potential heirs would only include a brother, a sister, and a few nephews. And he is not inclined to give them the money. "I don't care for anyone inheriting my money. In fact, I would kind of hate it," he explains. Then his eyes light up behind his horn-rimmed glasses, and he wags a bony finger in the air: "You know, giving money makes people evil. There are so many evil people every place I gave. The church. The Bible camp. The college. It's terrible."

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