A friend in an uphill battle


Larry Stappler sees the news that the Johns Hopkins University just ended a fund-raising campaign with $1.5 billion in the bank and shakes his head.

"What do they do, they send the Hubble up into space?" he says of Hopkins. "While right here we have the institution that can make such a difference in Baltimore."

A 72-year-old businessman, Stappler has, to put it simply, fallen in love with Coppin State College. Even though he had no previous ties, he speaks of the West Baltimore school with an enthusiasm that sometimes gets ahead of his syntax.

But as head of the historically black college's capital fund-raising campaign, he is running into a reality of university fund raising - it's a world where the rich get richer.

Hattie Washington, who heads Coppin's development office, can proudly point to the upward trend in the school's fund raising. "We raise our goal by 20 percent a year," she says.

But consider: Coppin raised $1.5 million last year, while the Hopkins campaign raised $1 billion in gifts of $1 million or more.

Washington says the biggest gift in Coppin history was $200,000, given recently by an anonymous donor. By matching that and then getting the state to match the total, she hopes to turn the gift into $800,000. Meanwhile, Hopkins' largest gift was $100 million from business information entrepreneur Michael R. Bloomberg.

For Stappler, this is a personal crusade. He got to know Coppin President Calvin W. Burnett in BLEWS, a black-Jewish organization. But he knew the Coppin campus from a lot further back.

"I grew up three blocks from here," he says, pointing west on North Avenue. "One day a few weeks ago, my wife and I are watching the 11 o'clock news, and they show what they say is the worst drug corner in the city. It's the corner I grew up on."

When Stappler lived in the neighborhood before World War II, the Coppin campus was a Lutheran center. Stappler, a civil defense messenger during the war, reported there for duty.

"I had my hat and my armband, but they never gave me any messages to deliver," he remembers. Stappler went on to Polytechnic Institute and the University of Maryland. He now owns Harbor Cruises among several businesses.

Coppin, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, was founded as a one-year training course for African-American teachers. The teachers college moved to North Avenue in 1952 and became a liberal arts school 30 years ago.

So, for Stappler, raising money is not just a matter of helping the college - it's also a matter of helping his old neighborhood.

In the president's office, Stappler and Burnett point to maps showing deteriorating housing and abandoned industrial areas around Coppin, and to others showing Coppin's plans for a new teaching center at the old Lutheran Hospital and expanded responsibilities in nearby schools as ways to help stabilize and improve the area south of North Avenue

Coppin is already running one public elementary school. It has put a health clinic and a community center amid the boarded up houses across North Avenue from its campus. And a major new classroom building is in the University System of Maryland capital funding pipeline.

But the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, in its assessment of the desegregation status of Maryland higher education, has singled out Coppin as the school that needs sprucing up.

"I would agree with that," says Donald N. Langenberg, chancellor of the University System. He says that the system has tried to help smaller schools such as Coppin with fund raising and that the Board of Regents authorized an increased payout from the system's endowment to support this effort.

Private contributions are never going to make up for state funding, he says, noting that they can provide the flexibility "to invest in new initiatives that you wouldn't be able to do any other way."

But Stappler can tick off the Baltimore businessmen he has approached and who have given him the same refrain. "They say they're not giving me anything, that's a state school," he says.

One problem Coppin faces is that its alumni, dominated by teachers, do not tend to be big donors, although the proportion who contribute to their alma mater is among the highest of Maryland's public colleges and universities.

Coppin relies on corporations for much of its fund raising. A recent gift of $90,000 in equipment from Nortel Networks was a highlight. T. Rowe Price has been generous, and Bell Atlantic has given to all of the state's historically black schools.

Stappler thinks that's not enough, that more people should realize the impact a place like Coppin can have and open their checkbooks. "Anybody who is really interested in making Baltimore a better place to live should be supporting this school," he says.

Burnett talks about the student studying computer science who came from a household with an income of $15,000 and left with a $55,000 job. "Now not all of them get $55,000 jobs, but plenty get $30,000 or $35,000 jobs," he says. "Think of the impact that has on those families."

Says Langenberg: "It wouldn't surprise me that if you could really rank colleges by the value-added method, in terms of what they do for their students, a place like Coppin would be number one and Harvard would be way down the list.

"Harvard's a great school, but you can hardly damage the students that go there; there's very little you can do that's going to prevent them from being successes. That's not true of students in places like Coppin."

Burnett says that fund raising was not part of the president's job he took on 30 years ago and still is not his favorite activity. He seems touched by Stappler's unending enthusiasm. "Larry has been the strongest supporter that we've ever had when it comes to delivering on the compliments," he says.

Adds Washington: "When you think that he grew up a few blocks from here and then came back to help us all these years later, it's like it was meant to be."

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