It was a difficult decision between Aloysius* Gonzaga and Cornelius Vanderbilt as our first “person who started a university” entry. Cornelius narrowly takes the cake for having an excellent nickname (“The Commodore”) and because we don’t want to say anything that might offend a saint like Aloysius Gonzaga.
At least not yet.
So Cornelius Vanderbilt – what makes him famous? Well, aside from bankrolling one of the top universities in the country, he was one of the richest people in U.S. history, At the time of his death in 1877, he was worth $105 million dollars, which was 1/87th of the entire United States economy. It has become en vogue lately to talk about the 1%. Well, at one point, Cornelis Vanderbilt was singlehandedly the top 1.15% of the U.S. economy.
Cornelius Vanderbilt was also a badass. He donated a gigantic ship to the Union Navy during the Civil War. At first, officers refused it, thinking it was too costly. So Vanderbilt stuck a battering ram on the front, named it after himself, and Abraham Lincoln had no choice but to ask Vanderbilt for his ship’s services to help stop the Confederate Ironclad Virginia.
After that mission was accomplished, they went on to convert the USS Vanderbilt to a cruiser, and it went after the Confederate commerce raider Alabama. During this time, Vanderbilt also outfitted a major expedition to New Orleans during this war.
Before the war, Vanderbilt made his first millions as a steamboat entrepreneur, and
afterwards, as a railroad tycoon. He bequeathed his business empire to his son William Henry Vanderbilt, who inherited most of his father’s business acumen and awesome hairstyle, but none of his funny-named badassery.
The most recent notable member of the Vanderbilt family is CNN host and daytime talk show anchor Anderson Cooper. Anderson might be the smartest mind in news (though it’s hard not to give that honor to Fareed Zakaria), and just adds to the awesomeness of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s legacy.
Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose peak wealth was only surpassed by John Rockefeller in terms of his share of the U.S. economy (they are the only two people to ever exceed 1% of the entire U.S. economy in personal wealth), has now added another feather to his cap as an inaugural member of the Funny Names Hall of Fame.
* (Aloysius is pronounced “Al-uh-wish-iss”)