Robert S. Brookings: Entrepreneur, philanthropist, civil servant

This story is a compilation of bios and profiles of Robert S. Brookings from the following sources: Washington University Public Affairs, Brookings Institution, Movers and Shakers, Scalawags and Suffragettes: Tales from Bellefontaine Cemetery by Carol Ferring Shepley, and Ralph E. Morrow’s Washington University in St. Louis, A History.

Robert Somers Brookings was born January 22, 1850, in Cecil County, Maryland, and grew up on the Little Elk Creek near Baltimore. His father died when Robert was only two and money was scarce.

Ironically, the future philanthropist and education advocate dropped out of school after just one year. He moved to St. Louis at age 17 to join his brother Harry as an employee of Cupples & Marston, wholesale dealers, manufacturers, and distributors of woodenware household goods. Robert worked as a clerk and also moonlighted as a bookkeeper, earning $25 a month and $10 a month, respectively.

After four years at Cupples & Marston, Robert and his brother decided to start their own firm. Rather than losing Robert to a new firm, Cupples offered to make him a partner, setting in motion a series of successes that had lasting effects for St. Louis, Washington University, and, ultimately, the Olin Business School.

By 1872, both Brookings brothers were partners in the firm, and it prospered under their management. By 30, Robert had become a millionaire and the vice president of the company.

Cupples Station, looking East and South from Eleventh and Spruce Streets. Photo: WUSTL Archives

Cupples Station: Revolutionizing shipping

One of Brookings’ greatest and lasting accomplishments was the construction of Cupples Station in 1895. Noticing that companies were paying to ship freight from railroads in the middle of St. Louis to warehouses along the river, Brookings had the idea to locate warehouses directly on the railroad, so trains could load and unload inside the warehouses themselves. Cupples Station revolutionized shipping in St. Louis and served as a model for other cities. Building the station required buying eight blocks of property, which brought the company near bankruptcy. No US banks would loan Brookings the money, but a British bank saved him with a $3-million loan. Once in business, the warehouses were a financial success.

A focus on higher education

After the launch of Cupples Station, Brookings turned his focus to charitable and philanthropic endeavors. Interested in education as a way of helping others, he toyed with the idea of funding his own university. Ultimately, Brookings decided to work with Washington University, which was under financial strain at the time.

“Brookings was offered a chance to run for the US Senate in 1909, but declined the honor in favor of rebuilding Washington University’s medical school.”   

-Brookings Institution history

Brookings helped transform the small school into a leading university with national prominence. He secured funding for one hundred acres that would become the University’s Hilltop Campus, now known as the Danforth Campus. By 1899, the University’s endowment was stable. Brookings’s friends, including William K. Bixby, Adolphus Busch, and Edward Mallinckrodt, assisted with the building campaign. All three have buildings named after them on the Washington University campus. And when the 1904 World’s Fair took place in St. Louis, Brookings rented out many of the new University buildings to the exposition.

In 1895, Brookings became president of the University’s governing board and served in that position for 33 years, giving much of his time, his fortune (an estimated $5 million), and his former home to revitalize the University and its medical school.

Planting seeds for business school

Robert S. Brookings

In 1913, when William Gephart was hired to chair the economics department at Washington University, President Brookings and then-Chancellor Frederic Hall asked him for advice on the required curriculum for offering a few business courses. Gephart responded with a lengthy report titled “A Report on Schools of Commerce” that included a survey of business education at leading universities and details on creating a business school. It was much more than the administration had requested, but Gephart was devoted to the cause of establishing a business school. He lobbied the University Board for the next two years until the Board approved “a general scheme to establish a School of Administration … as soon as the necessary funds would be provided,” writes Ralph Morrow in his history of Washington University. However, Gephart was impatient and took the fund-raising into his own hands:

“Armed with a letter of endorsement from Bookings, he scoured the business houses of the city for money, and in the fall of 1917, the school, which had been renamed the School of Commerce and Finance … opened with pledges of budget support from more than thirty businessmen and firms.” (Ralph E. Morrow, Washington University in St. Louis, A History)

Brookings pledged the largest amount: $1,000.

Public service and the birth of the Brookings Institution

In the midst of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson called on Brookings to serve on the War Industries Board in 1917. A year later, the president asked him to chair the Price Fixing Committee. In this role, Brookings became the link between the government and hundreds of industries, achieving remarkable results under very difficult circumstances. For his war service he was recognized with the US Distinguished Service Medal, the French Legion of Honor, and Italy’s Commander of the Crown.

Brookings had previously worked with other government reformers to create the first private organization devoted to the fact-based study of national public policy: the Institute for Government Research. The institute became the chief advocate for effective and efficient public service and sought to bring “science” to the study of government.

Following the war, Brookings created two sister organizations in Washington, DC: the Institute of Economics in 1922 and a graduate school in 1924. (The latter was intended to be part of WashU’s business school, but the University charter did not permit out-of-state annexes.) In 1927, the two institutes and the school merged to form the present-day Brookings Institution, with the mission to promote, conduct, and foster research “in the broad fields of economics, government administration, and the political and social sciences.” Started with a grant of $160,000, the Brookings Institution has grown to a budget that exceeds $80 million.

The Brookings Institution and Washington University began offering joint programs, including internships, lectures, and other educational activities, in 2009. Olin Business School took over management of Brookings’ executive education activities that year and has grown the program under the guidance of Jackson Nickerson, Frahm Family Professor of Management and Strategy.

In 2011, Brookings received his own star on the Walk of Fame along Delmar Boulevard in the Loop, University City, Missouri. Brookings’ star is located at the northeast corner of Delmar and Skinker Boulevard at 6197 Delmar.

End of an era

In 1928, amid a flood of tributes, Brookings completed his term as Washington University’s board president. The building he donated, University Hall, was renamed “Brookings Hall” in his honor. Already the recipient of honorary degrees from Yale, the University of Missouri, and Harvard, Brookings was awarded Washington University’s honorary LL.M. and MD degrees at the 1929 Commencement.

Brookings wrote three books: Industrial Ownership (1925), Economic Democracy (1929), and The Way Forward (1932).

He died in 1932; his wife in 1965. They are buried side by side in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.

Sources: Washington University Public Affairs, Brookings Institution, Movers and Shakers, Scalawags and Suffragettes: Tales from Bellefontaine Cemetery by Carol Ferring Shepley, and Ralph E. Morrow’s Washington University in St. Louis, A History, WUSTL Archives, and Washington University Photographic Services.

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