Duke Celebrates the Life of Edmund T. Pratt Jr.

When 17-year-old Edmund T. Pratt Jr. arrived on campus 58 years ago and first saw Duke Chapel, he said he thought he was going to heaven. University leaders, faculty, students and family members gathered in the towering Gothic church Nov. 1 and celebrated the life of the retired businessman and philanthropist who died in September.

"Duke University is a better and more renowned institution because of his example, his stewardship, his love and his gifts," said Duke President Nannerl O. Keohane. "And the world itself is a better place because Ed Pratt is part of it."

Pratt graduated from Duke with a degree in engineering in 1947. He went on to earn an MBA at the Wharton School of Business, served in the Navy during the Korean War, joined the Kennedy administration as assistant secretary of the Army for financial management and eventually went on to become chairman and chief executive officer of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc.

In 1999, Pratt donated $35 million to Duke’s school of engineering, which became the Edmund T. Pratt Jr. School of Engineering.

"He gave of himself not in order to receive thanks or praise or honors but out of an old fashioned sense of conviction – the kind of conviction that animates all good deeds," Keohane said at the service led by The Rev. William H. Willimon, "He was convinced that one person could make a difference and should; and so, of course, he did."

Kristina M. Johnson, dean of the Pratt School, said the school’s benefactor was a great man who humbly said he was "just plain lucky." "I know we are all the lucky ones to have had such a special person’s presence grace our lives," Johnson said. "Ed’s legacy lives on in so many ways and in particular in the lives of thousands of alumni who will be known for ever more as Pratt graduates. Thanks Ed. You’re truly awesome."

Senior Kyle C. Smith, a biomedical engineering major who has a Pratt Fellowship, said the school’s students are honored to carry the Pratt name as they move forward in life.

"Mr. Pratt was a delightful, generous and remarkable person by all accounts and cared deeply for the university and the curious young minds here," said Smith, who met Pratt at a lunch for Pratt Fellows.

"His generosity and dedication to the school has endowed it with a promise of continued growth and excellence in research and scholarship. We are his legacy," Smith said, addressing the students attending the memorial service. "Be honored to attend a school bearing the name of a man with such vitality, intellectual curiosity and creative and energetic spirit."

Peter M. Nicholas, founder and chairman of Boston Scientific Corp., and university benefactor for whom the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences is named, said, "Ed left indelible marks on everybody and everything he came in contact with."

"Remarkable for his surprising humility, Ed was uncomplicated. He believed in the old fashioned virtue of hard work. He was always preoccupied with trying to make things better. Ed was a builder. He was honest, decent, straightforward. As they say, Ed walked the talk. He was also an idealist but he was realistic, pragmatic. Â…

"He believed that people were at their best when they worked in an environment that was open, fair and a fun place to be. He was ambitious, high-charging, full of energy all his life, but always on behalf of others; rarely for himself. He was more like a plow horse and a show horse. He got things done."

Pratt died of cancer Sept. 5 cancer at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He went to Duke as a naval officer trainee. "I got on this Navy bus and we went through all these woods," he recalled in a 1999 interview. "And then we turned this corner, and I could see up the street to this chapel. And I thought 'My God, I'm going to heaven!' And it's been that way ever since. Duke has been like a heaven for me."