Matilda and Alfred Wilson founded Oakland University in 1957 with a visionary gift of 1,400 acres, estate buildings and $2 million.
In 1957, Alfred and Matilda Wilson decided the future of the sprawling Meadow Brook Farms property, its modern farm buildings and the cultural jewel at the center of the estate: the 110-room Meadow Brook Hall. They donated 1,400 acres, all of the estate buildings and $2 million to Michigan State University to start a branch campus on their land.
Founded in 1855, Michigan State University was one of the nation’s first schools intended to teach agricultural science. Matilda Wilson had long been affiliated with Michigan State: she was a trustee from 1931 to 1937 (and named trustee emeritus in 1960) and received an honorary degree in 1955.
The gift of their land and money, valued at $10 million, was the start of what is today Oakland University.
Though it was first called Michigan State University-Oakland, the college was always run separately from MSU and the name was changed to Oakland University by the time the first class graduated in 1963. They gained complete autonomy in 1970.
Today, Oakland University has more than 20,000 students and has granted degrees to more than 100,000 students.
Matilda was said to be having the “best years of her life” with the early students of Oakland University. Students recalled her whipping across the dirt roads of the campus in her pink Dodge and dropping baskets of apples outside their classroom doors.
She was said to know many of them by name. She invited them to her home for tea and dances, including the first OU Prom in 1963 for the charter class graduation (Alfred had passed away the year before). While the students danced to a live band in Meadow Brook’s ballroom, Matilda announced that she had a surprise for each of them in Alfred’s study: a class ring with a diamond chip inserted in the center.
After Alfred’s death in 1962 and Matilda’s in 1967, Oakland University took possession of Meadow Brook Hall from Matilda Wilson’s estate in 1971.
Located on the university’s East Campus, near the corner of Walton Boulevard and Adams Road, Meadow Brook, with its expansive grounds and gardens, today operates as a self-supporting auxiliary enterprise of Oakland University.
Designated a National Historic Landmark in 2012, Meadow Brook staff generate on average $9,500 a day in revenue to fund public museum and community educational activity and another $1,500 a day for ongoing preservation of the building and conservation of its invaluable collections.
The Hall offers a case study for other like institutions, raising this extraordinary amount through touring fees, special community events, educational camps, museum store sales, facility rental and philanthropic support.
And, equally as importantly, the daily challenges are met head-on by a small, frugal, hardworking staff who embrace the commitment to quality that built America during the first half of the 20th Century.