Horace H. Rackham was born on a Macomb County, Michigan, farm in 1858 to a retired English sea captain and his strong-willed, devoutly Baptist wife, and was educated in a one-room schoolhouse. As a young man he worked at a variety of jobs in Detroit and studied law at night. In 1894 he opened a law firm.
There was little exceptional about Rackham’s life or his law practice just that his neighbor happened to be Henry Ford, who then was only dreaming of the possibilities for the automobile. When Ford decided to incorporate his fledgling business in 1903, he engaged Rackham to draw up the required papers. Having no money with which to pay his lawyer, Ford instead convinced Rackham that an investment in the company might earn him his reward. In an uncharacteristic gamble, Rackham borrowed $5,000 and bought 100 shares of Ford’s stock.
In 1908, the stock split twenty-for-one, and Rackham quit the practice of law in 1913 to attend to his fortune. When Edsel Ford, acting as his father’s agent, bought up all Ford stock in 1919, Rackham’s portion was worth $12.5 million. He had earned $2 million in dividends alone. Thus was his fortune made, and Rackham spent the rest of his life giving away his money.
He became a revered supporter of the Detroit intellectual community. Rackham’s benefaction toward The University of Michigan dates to 1922, when he began aiding both scientific and humanistic endeavors. It continued until his death in 1933. He financed anthropological expeditions to the Philippines and the Near East, purchased for the University some rare collections of Greek antiquities, and sponsored three visiting fellowships in the creative arts, one of which went to Robert Frost.
In his will, Rackham left a $100,000 fund for graduate-student loans; his law library was given to the law school by his wife soon after his death. Rackham’s will also established the Horace H. Rackham and Mary A. Rackham Fund (his wife, who was still alive then, oversaw the fund in her role as board chairman) expressly to aid advanced education and research. The fund had assets of over $14 million, of which two-thirds annually go to the University, along with personal gifts from Mrs. Rackham amounting to $2 million.