George F. Getty

The Getty name is notorious worldwide for prodigious wealth and tragedy. But few know that the Getty family dynasty can trace its beginning to Ohio Northern University. In fact, ONU’s Getty College of Arts & Sciences is named after George Franklin Getty, BS 1879, LLD 1926 and Sarah Catherine (Risher) Getty who were both students at ONU, made a fortune in oil, and became the parents of the eccentric J. Paul Getty, who was destined to become–in his day and age— the wealthiest person in the world.

The Getty family may be fodder for tabloids and Hollywood movies, yet the family has connected with ONU in enriching ways over the course of three generations.

George and Sarah Getty

George F. Getty lived a rags-to-riches story. In 1875 he arrived on ONU’s campus wearing too-short trousers and coat sleeves that he’d outgrown. Shy and unassuming, he had just enough money to get him started in college. Flash forward 30 years and the farm boy from eastern Ohio had transformed into millionaire oil tycoon and one of the university’s biggest benefactors.

Throughout his life, Getty never forgot the warm welcome he was given at Northern when he was a nobody. “It seems to me now as I look back, that had I entered one of the large and fashionable universities of the east at this time, that my reception would have been entirely different. At Ada, I was received as though I was an important personage,” he once wrote.

Getty greatly admired ONU’s founder, Henry Solomon Lehr, and forged a lasting friendship with him. He recalled that Lehr didn’t mind his humble background. “In fact, if anything, it inspired him with greater interest and helpfulness because he too had felt the pinch of poverty and had traveled over the same road,” he wrote. He also was impressed that Lehr ruled the school successfully with a gentle hand. In fact, it was Getty who penned the tribute to Lehr that is often quoted today in historical accounts. In a Feb.12, 1923 letter to Dr. Lehr’s widow, he wrote: “It seems to me now that the lessons he taught me were not so much Algebra, Latin, Mental Philosophy or any other particular study which was on the curriculum, but the deepest lessons which I learned were Work, Sympathy, Human Kindness, and these I got from his wonderful example. He had built around him an institution which was composed of the spirit of himself.”

After graduating from ONU in 1879, Getty obtained his law degree from the University of Michigan. He was practicing law in Minneapolis when he became interested in the oil drilling business and purchased speculative land in Oklahoma. He struck oil on the land, started the Minnehoma Oil Company, and moved his family to Los Angeles, Calif.

Getty’s wife, Sarah, also attended ONU from 1875 to 1878 and it is likely the two met while students. They both retained fond memories of Northern. This led to George making several significant monetary donations, delivering the commencement address in 1916, receiving two honorary degrees, and serving as a trustee from 1917-30. During his visits to Ada, his only son, J. Paul Getty, would sometimes accompany him.

In 1927, ONU’s board of trustees voted to name the liberal arts college the George Franklin and Sarah Catherine Getty College of Liberal Arts in recognition of the couple’s leadership and support. Thus, the College of Arts & Sciences became the first named college on ONU’s campus.

According to anecdotal reports, Getty was considering making a substantial contribution to ONU in the 1920s. He never made that gift and the reason why is not clear. He died on May 31, 1930, at age 74, after suffering a paralytic stroke. Sarah died 11 years later in 1941.

J. Paul Getty receiving an ONU degree
J. Paul Getty receiving and honorary doctorate by ONU president Samuel Meyer.

The Infamous J. Paul Getty

Whereas George Getty became a millionaire, his only son, J. Paul Getty, became a billionaire. For comparison sake, he was like the Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos of his era, achieving worldwide notoriety due to his obscene wealth.

Ohio Northern University’s ties in the 1950s and 1960s to the infamous J. Paul Getty seem almost too incredible to believe. Although he was not known for his charitable giving, he made several unsolicited donations of Getty oil stock to ONU, estimated around $1.5 million. Notoriously reticent, he nonetheless warmly welcomed ONU students and administrators to his palatial estate in England on several occasions.

J. Paul Getty lived a life that was, in many ways, a contradiction to the Christian values instilled in him by his parents. The J. Paul Getty Trust website describes him as “an eccentric, a playboy, a genius, a tightwad” and “a self-avowed non-conformist.” Wildly successful in business, he failed at achieving a happy family life. He was married five times and had five sons with four of his wives.

While his ONU alumnus father got him started in the oil business, J. Paul Getty achieved much of his success on his own. In 1949, he gambled by investing in an oil lease in a country most people had never heard of at the time—Saudi Arabia. Just four years later, his investment paid off enormously, producing 16 million barrels of oil a year, making him a billionaire, and transforming the entire Middle East.

In 1959, he moved permanently to England, living in a Tudor estate dating back to the early 16th century called Sutton Place. There he was closer to his business interests in the Middle East and he could collect the fine art he so admired. As the “world’s wealthiest man” according to the 1957 Fortune magazine, his lifestyle attracted immense attention. The press often focused on the salacious details of his life, including his tendency toward miserliness, his shortcomings as a husband and father, and family tragedies.

In particular, a worldwide audience was captivated in 1973 when J. Paul Getty’s grandson, John Paul Getty III, age 16, was kidnapped by an Italian organized crime ring. Initially, J. Paul Getty refused to pay the $17 million ransom, believing that if did so, it would encourage similar acts of kidnapping. Then, when the kidnappers cut off his grandson’s ear and sent it to a local newspaper, he negotiated a $3 million ransom which he made his son repay with 4 percent interest. Nearly half a century later, the Getty kidnapping still hasn’t left the public’s imagination. Just recently, it served as the plot for the 2017 Hollywood movie “All the Money in the World,” starring Christopher Plummer and Mark Wahlberg and the 2018 FX television drama series “Trust.”

ONU Visits J. Paul Getty

ONU had several extraordinary opportunities to connect with the infamous J. Paul Getty during the zenith of his fame. The most prominent occasion took place in August 1966 when a delegation of ONU administrators, trustees and choral students traveled to England to present him with an honorary doctorate.

University Singers at J. Paul Getty's home in England
The University Singers at J. Paul Getty's home in England

The members of the ONU delegation must have been bursting with excitement over the chance to meet the world’s wealthiest man at his legendary home. The trip clearly did not disappoint. ONU’s chaplain at the time, Dr. James S. Udy, wrote: “The clear memories of this unforgettable English summer afternoon were etched permanently in the minds of each person present.”

The ceremony took placed in Getty’s stately great hall where the ONU guests were surrounded by the ancient echoes of royal banquets and by the priceless works of art that Getty fastidiously collected, including original Rubens and Rembrandts.

Getty appeared obviously moved, according to Udy, when a correspondence between his parents and ONU’s founder Henry Solomon Lehr was read. After the ceremony, Getty invited his guests to enjoy refreshments. Much to their delight, he then gave them an impromptu tour of the art-filled rooms of his mansion. He led them outside for a walk through his rose gardens and a look at the 500-year-old Cedars of Lebanon on his estate while his Alsatian watch dogs trotted along.

During the visit, according to Udy’s notes, Getty said: “Ohio Northern University played a great part in my father’s life. He was always speaking of Ohio Northern and the friends he made there, the studies and opportunities he had there. He felt that it contributed in a marked way to his success later in life.”

Did Getty value the honorary doctorate from ONU? Perhaps. An Esquire magazine story in October 1969 titled “Jean Paul Getty and his Golden Age,” reported that one of the few items laid neatly on the large desk in Getty’s imposing drawing room was “a leather-bound degree of Doctor of Laws, presented in 1966 to Getty by Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio.”

Interestingly, August 1966 wasn’t the only time that an ONU delegation visited J. Paul Getty. ONU President F. Bringle McIntosh had established a congenial relationship with Getty, and according to records, met with him privately on two occasions. McIntosh once wrote to a Getty family member: “Let me say I have no illusions about the life of J. Paul Getty. He was no saint, and he would be the first to admit it.” He added: “J. Paul Getty was a complex man and sometimes difficult to understand. Yet I never came away from a visit with him but that my life was enriched by the experience.”

ONU’s choir also visited Getty in September 1970 while on a European tour. Choir director Karl Roider noted that Getty was delayed in London because he was meeting with Saudi Arabian diplomats. Once Getty arrived, ONU’s choir sang several selections and “each student was introduced to Getty and he shook hands and he chatted with all, posing freely for pictures.” Roider and his wife found J. Paul Getty to be “cordial and gracious” despite his reputation for being inaccessible and reserved, according to a newspaper account.

J. Paul Getty died in 1976 at age 83. He left his impressive art collection and the bulk of his estate to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. His family members also inherited billions through a trust with stocks in Getty Oil.  While Getty reportedly once told ONU President Bringle McIntosh that Ohio Northern University was “a top priority” among his charities, ONU was not included in J. Paul Getty’s will.

Gordon Getty

A third generation Getty also forged connections with Ohio Northern. Gordon Getty, one of J. Paul Getty’s five sons, is a renowned American composer and musician who visited ONU on two occasions, April 1997 and April 2000, for performances of his compositions.

Interestingly, Gordon’s grandmother, Sarah Getty, wrote about young Gordon’s interest in music in a letter she sent to the daughter of ONU founder Henry S. Lehr. Gordon, who was 4 years old at the time, was “just the most interesting age,” she wrote, and he entertained her often with “little songs learned in school.”

When Gordon’s father, J. Paul Getty died, Gordon assumed control of the family’s approximately $2 billion family trust. In 1986, he sold Getty Oil to Texaco, cementing his position as one of the wealthiest people in the U.S.

Residing in San Francisco, Gordon and his wife became well-known philanthropists. A trained opera singer, Gordon also became a renowned classical music composer, earning critical acclaim for many works which have been performed around the world, including in Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center.

In April 1997, Getty came to campus for a concert featuring the ONU Symphony Orchestra and the University Singers. The groups performed several of his works, including “Annabel Lee,” based on an Edgar Allen Poe poem, and “Victorian Scenes: Six Choruses on Poems by Tennyson and Housman.”

He came back to campus just three years later, April 2000, for another special performance that featured the University Singers performing his Cantata “Joan and the Bells” and the world premiere of his choral setting of three Welsh folk songs. Five members of the San Francisco Opera joined the University Singers to perform parts of Plump Jack.

Dennis Kratzer, retired ONU professor of music and director of choral activities, remembers how extensively the choir rehearsed before the performance. “I told them we will do this and we will do it perfectly,” he said.

Apparently, the choir succeeded in a knockout performance. When Kratzer encountered Getty on a subsequent occasion, Getty told him that he much preferred the University Singers’ rendition of the Welsh folk songs to the rendition sung by a German choir he had hired to produce a recording.

Sara (Cockerell) Chongson, BS ‘04, was a sophomore in the University Singers in 2000. She remembers Getty stopping by during a rehearsal. “It was evident he was appreciative of the creative process of seeing a work coming to fruition,” she said. “He seemed gracious and warm.”

Today, Gordon Getty, grandson of George F. Getty, is 87 years old and still living in San Francisco. He is ONU’s last link to the Getty family. As of this writing, ONU has not cultivated any connections to the great-grandchildren of the namesake of the Getty College of Arts & Sciences.

Note: A special thank you to Matt Francis, ONU Archives, for his assistance in gathering historical materials and research. Francis noted that he has a request into the Getty Research Institute Library in Los Angeles for copies of any materials from George Franklin Getty and J. Paul Getty that reference Ohio Northern University. The receipt of these materials in the future may shed further light on the University’s fascinating relationship with one of the world’s wealthiest families.