Former UND student generously endowed his alma mater
History columnist Curt Eriksmoen continues the story of Chester Fritz, a North Dakota native who left an enduring mark on the University of North Dakota.
FARGO — Life did not begin well for a young boy from Buxton, North Dakota, during the 1890s and early 1900s. When Chester Fritz was 6 years old his father was forced to sell his farm and move to Fargo. When Fritz was 8, his father suffered an accident that left him handicapped and unable to support his family. When he was 13, his mother abandoned him and he was raised by his young aunt, Kathrine (Belanger) Macdonald, and her husband, Neil Macdonald. Despite all of this, Fritz graduated from high school as valedictorian at the age of 16.
After receiving his college degree in 1915, Fritz soon found himself in China where he made, lost, and remade fortunes. Most of his money was made as a bullion trader and by interpreting monetary policies in several Far Eastern countries.
Even though Fritz only spent the first two years of college at the University of North Dakota, that school became the recipient of one-third of his net worth. Between 1950 and 1969, Fritz donated more than $2.25 million to UND. These donations helped to finance the Chester Fritz Scholarship Fund, the Chester Fritz Library , the Chester Fritz Auditorium , and the Kathrine B. Tiffany Scholarship Fund.
In 1915, Fritz was sent to Hong Kong in China by an international flour milling company to be a trader for their company. He proved to be exceptionally successful and was soon representing the company in several southeastern Asian countries. His business activities came to a halt in 1917 when the U.S. entered World War I. Instead of returning to the U.S., Fritz decided to spend six months touring China, making valuable contacts, and exploring new business opportunities.
When the war ended in 1918, Fritz teamed up with his former boss, Charles E. Richardson, and together they became involved in a tungsten mining operation in China. They sold the tungsten to the U.S. Tungsten was valuable because it strengthened other metals that it was alloyed with, and since China had the largest deposits of tungsten, this appeared to be a very profitable venture. In 1919, Fritz returned to the U.S. to lobby members of Congress to raise the price of tungsten. When Congress failed to act on his request, Fritz dissolved his partnership with Richardson and, in 1921, went to work for the American Metal Company.
Harold Hochschild was one of the top executives with AMCO and he hired Fritz because of the former North Dakotan's experience in the metal trade and international finance. AMCO dealt primarily with copper but decided to expand into other metals. Fritz, who had an extensive background in other metals in China, was brought into the company. Fritz based his operation out of Shanghai, where he worked primarily in silver trade overseeing AMCO’s Asia operations, brokering trade, and supervising shipments to the U.S.
While in Shanghai, Fritz now had time and money to become involved as a sportsman. He owned and maintained a stable of ponies with which he competed in polo and hounds and hares, earning a reputation as a champion in those sports. In 1928, Fritz approached the brokerage firm of Swan, Culbertson & Company, which traded New York stocks and bonds and Chinese government bonds, and proposed an equal partnership. The firm accepted Fritz’s proposal and the company was renamed Swan, Culbertson & Fritz (SC&F). This company expanded by having branch offices in Singapore, Hong Kong, Manila, and, eventually, South America and became one of the most successful investment firms in the Far East.
Fritz’s activities in China started to become tense in 1936 because of the imperialistic actions on the part of Japan. In 1937, Japan invaded China commencing the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War, and Japan began seizing parts of China. However, Shanghai, and especially the international enclave in which Fritz worked and lived, continued operations with few restrictions. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, foreigners, including Fritz, were required to wear armbands identifying their nationalities, yet business and daily life continued mostly unchanged. In August of 1942, Fritz was placed in an internment camp along with 1,500 other Americans, and the Japanese confiscated his business and all of his assets. After 14 months in the internment camp, the International Red Cross obtained his release, and Fritz returned to the U.S.
In 1947, Fritz returned to Shanghai, but his days of trading silver were over because China converted to a gold-based economy. Fritz shifted his focus to the trading of gold, and moved his base of operation to Hong Kong. After the Communist revolution of 1949, Fritz closed his operation in China and in 1950 began dealing with gold shipped to India. Fritz also began making deals in Argentina and Uruguay in South America, and, as an independent trader he found great financial success investing in IBM stock and certain Japanese government bonds. In later life, Fritz invested heavily in South African gold.
In the early 1950s, Fritz lived in New York City, and in 1953 moved to Rome, and then settled in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1957. From 1972 until his death on July 28, 1983, Fritz lived in Monte Carlo and Lausanne, Switzerland. After he was cremated, Fritz’s ashes were sent to Grand Forks and were buried in the Memorial Park Cemetery.
Fritz made his first philanthropic donation to UND in November of 1950 after attending a UND alumni dinner in New York City. He sent a check for $10,000 to the University of North Dakota Development Fund. Fritz returned to UND in June 1951 to accept an honorary doctorate degree and pledged an additional $20,000, and indicated a desire to set up a scholarship fund in his will. In December of 1956, Fritz set up an irrevocable trust fund of $100,000 (one million dollars today) to be held in perpetuity, authorizing UND to award $5000 annually in scholarships.
On February 15, 1958, it was announced that Fritz made a gift of $1 million for the construction of the Chester Fritz Library. The idea for it was conceived by Fritz’s aunt and former guardian, Kathrine Macdonald Tiffany, who presented the proposal to Fritz. He saw this as an opportunity to honor his foster parents. It would become the largest library in North Dakota, and was the first million-dollar gift by an individual donor to an institution in the state . In 1965, Fritz gave another million dollars towards the construction of the Chester Fritz Auditorium. Between 1950 and 1969, Fritz donated more than $2.25 million to UND, which amounts to more than $20 million in today’s dollars. Fritz described his gift of the library for the “campus mind” and the auditorium for the “campus heart.” Both gifts have been appreciated by generations of students who have attended UND.