Thomas Mellon: Alumnus Who Founded a Dynasty
Inspired by The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas A. Mellon decided in 1834 to enroll at the Western University of Pennsylvania rather than try to eke out a living on his family’s farm.
Only 43 other students were studying at “WUP” (later renamed the University of Pittsburgh) at that time, but they and their professors made up for their small numbers in “energy and earnestness,” Mellon would write a half-century later in his own autobiography, after he’d earned fame and fortune—an immense fortune—as an attorney, entrepreneur, investor, and founder of a Pittsburgh-based banking dynasty.
“The purpose of all seemed to be work and progress… . It seemed to be just the place I had been looking for,” Mellon wrote of Western University, which had recently moved into a new building on Third Street in downtown Pittsburgh.
After spending five years and $500 at the University (a hefty amount for the poor, Ulster-born Mellon, who before enrolling at WUP had once walked 20 miles each way to visit another local university; he couldn’t afford the $1 that a carriage ride would have cost him), Mellon briefly taught classics at WUP before gaining admission to the bar.
He went on to open his own law firm, win election as an Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas judge, shrewdly invest his earnings in downtown real estate, and open a banking house—T. Mellon & Sons—which by the end of the 19th century would be the largest banking institution in the United States outside of New York.
Mellon died on his 95th birthday in 1908, the same year that the Western University of Pennsylvania changed its name to the University of Pittsburgh and laid the first cornerstone of its Oakland campus.
Since then, the Mellon family has contributed mightily to Pittsburgh’s growth and welfare. Generations of Mellons have served Pitt as trustees and advisors, and as benefactors both public (endowing Mellon Professorships and Fellowships, for example) and private (most notably, donating the land on which the Cathedral of Learning was built—a $1.5-million contribution in 1926 dollars. A decade later, former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon donated $500,000 to complete the Cathedral’s Commons Room. Because the Mellons avoided public announcements of their gifts, knowledge of these beneficences didn't become public for years).