FRYEBURG — A small-town farm boy who grew up to be a New York investment banker has left $15 million to his alma mater, Fryeburg Academy.
Bion R. Cram, who graduated in the Class of 1933, left $15 million of his $28.5 million estate to be used for scholarships and academic resources, Fryeburg Academy officials announced recently. The remainder of his estate, $13.5 was left to his college alma mater, Bowdoin College in Brunswick.
“It really and truly means the world. Everyone views it as a large endorsement by a man served well by this school,” said Dan Lee, headmaster at Fryeburg Academy. Lee said he knew the academy was in Cram's will about a year before he died but did not know the extent of the bequest until a few months ago.
“We were shocked at its size,” he said.
Cram, who lived in Kennebunkport and Florida, passed away on Dec. 21, 2008, at the age of 93.
Financially, the implications are staggering, he said. Of the $15 million, $3 million was advanced after the school's gymnasium burned to the ground in a 2005 fire. The Performing Arts Center was also rebuilt with the money.
The remaining $12 million will be split to provide $6 million in scholarship grants with a preference given to Maine students and the other $6 million going to support academic resources, including the Bion Cram Library, which Cram gave $500,000 to build many years ago.
Both the scholarships and the academic resources will be funded through the gift's interest only. No principal will be touched, Lee said.
“We're blessed,” he said.
The man who left his entire estate to the two schools he attended lived within his means, according to his niece, Mary Lowatchie.
“He was a very frugal man who lived a very simple life. Money did not rule him. He never even had a mortgage,” Lowatchie told the Sun Journal in a recent phone interview. “He was really a generous and caring man He felt people should have things they need.”
Lowatchie said his mother came down from Canada where the family had a boat-building business in Canada. His father was an interior designer who worked in the Portland area.
“They weren't poor, but they always managed,” she said of the family's income.
Lee agreed. “He was a humble man, a gentleman, very much of the old school. He was definitely a guy who believed in paying it forward. For him it was just the right thing to do. His life changed when he walked through these doors (of the academy),” Lee said.
Cram grew up on a farm in Baldwin near the southern tip of Oxford County, probably attending one of the many one-room schoolhouses that dotted Maine's landscape in the early 1900s. Lee said that like other children of that time, he probably lived very simply: going to school after doing early morning farm chores, then returning from school to do more work around the farm.
But Lee said one day in the late 1920s the headmaster of Fryeburg Academy came knocking on his door and offered Cram a scholarship to the academy on a recommendation of someone he knew.
”(He) had heard Bion was a deserving kid with academic ability,” Lee said.
By all accounts, Cram was an excellent student, receiving the school's highest award, the Harvey Dow Gibson medal. In fact it was Gibson, president of a major New York bank, who offered him a job when he graduated from Bowdoin.
“We still give out the Gibson Award. It's the single most impressive award,” Lee said.
Cram went to work at an entry-level position at the Manufacturers Trust Co. in New York City and later entered the world of investment banking until his retirement in 1982.
“He loved what he did,” Lowatchie said. “He really did. I can remember him saying, 'I just loved doing it.' It wasn't a job to him. He loved the stock market. He loved meeting people."
“He said education was all important, and it gave him the tools (to succeed), but it's not the money, it is the time we spend with others,” Lowatchie said. “He didn't spend money he didn't have to. He controlled money. Money did not control him."
Lee said Cram returned to Fryeburg, which now houses SAD 72 students and 135 boarding students from around the world, for the past eight or nine years to attend events, including class reunions and the library dedication that was named in Cram's honor.
“This is the largest gift in our 218-year history,” Lee said. “He's made an impact. The gift makes a real impact. It's an example I hope our students learn from and they make some effort to paying it forward.”