Friday, March 18, 2011

Lasting Impressions

I was finishing my master's degree at the University of Wisconsin and had the opportunity to return to Iowa State University, my alma mater, where I had been graduated with a bachelor's degree in engineering. I strolled around the campus and then visited my old dorm. A number of fellows that had been underclassmen when I was a senior were still residing there. As we sat in the television room and chatted about old times, a student who was a stranger to me heard my last name, got off the couch, and went running down the hall yelling, "Wagman's come back." Soon freshmen and sophomores rushed to greet me. I could not account for my celebrity, as I had not made a big splash during my time at the university.

It was explained to me that my name had become infamously linked with a unsportsmanlike tactic during penny-ante poker: the so-called "Wagman move." Allegedly, as a hand was being dealt, I would pick up my cards from the table one by one. If I didn't like what I was seeing, I would knock my final card off the table and declare a misdeal.

I protested to the throng that I had been defamed. They scoffed and jeered.

I returned to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin to complete my master's degree and then left to take a job in industry. I was off to a good start on my career. Yet I was troubled. My humiliation at Iowa State University still weighed on my mind. If Iowa State University remembered me as a miserable card cheat, how might the University of Wisconsin remember me? As a modern day Jack the Ripper?

I decided to buy myself a favorable lasting impression. I saved up two weeks' pay (roughly equal in present day dollars to the value of my current Volvo motorcar) and sent it back to my graduate school colleagues as an endowment for beer and pizza. The following year I repeated the donation.

Microsoft's Bill Gates followed a roughly similar course decades later. Philanthropy is often a bribe offered to History.

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