David Ross’ Lasting Mark

By ANGELA K. ROBERTS 

STADIUM PHOTO PROVIDED BY PURDUE MARKETING & MEDIA

OTHER PHOTOS PROVIDED BY PURDUE ARCHIVES

In 1922, David Edward Ross, engineer, businessman and noted Purdue University alumnus, asked Tippecanoe County Judge Henry Vinton to introduce him to another Purdue graduate of note —playwright and syndicated newspaper columnist George Ade, five years his senior. 

After meeting in the judge’s chambers, Ross asked Ade to take a short drive with him. Parking at an old dairy farm northwest of Purdue’s tiny campus, they climbed uphill, then peered down into a vast natural bowl carved into the landscape. 

Then, as Robert Kriebel writes in “Ross-Ade: Their Purdue Stories, Stadium and Legacies,” the engineer gave a pitch something like this:

“’Here is where we [Trustees] will put our recreational field and stadium. You’ll notice that much of the work of grading and providing a hillside of just the right slope for a stadium grandstand has already been done [by Nature]. It’s about the same size as the ancient stadium of Athens. I had a man look up the dimensions. There isn’t much difference.’”

Ade nodded in agreement, Kriebel notes, saying it did indeed seem to be about the same size as the Panathenaic Stadium, which Ade had visited in 1898. But, he wondered, what did this have to do with him? 

Ross said that he hoped Ade would help him finance a stadium for the university, to which Ade responded that he’d tried to promote several projects at Purdue, but had never had much luck. He concluded, “‘To help someone else would be a great relief. So my answer is yes.’”

Ade’s words were his stock in trade, and yet it was the soft-spoken engineer who persuaded him that day. And it was Ross who convinced alumni to give half a million dollars to build the Purdue Memorial Union, who purchased land for an airport and an engineering survey camp, and who pushed for the creation of the Purdue Research Foundation to spur innovation and discovery at the university. 

Of course, money talks, too, and the contributions that Ross made to the university and the community before and after his death, along with the businesses that he created, have left a lasting legacy at Purdue and Greater Lafayette. 

“David Ross helped lay the groundwork that made Purdue a modern university. Almost everything about Purdue in the first 40 years of the 20th century directly involved Ross,” says Adriana Harmeyer, archivist for university history with Purdue University Archives and Special Collections. “We remember him for Ross-Ade Stadium, which itself is a wonderful legacy, but his actions as a trustee and advocate for the university created some of our most important resources, especially the Purdue Research Foundation that continues to enable groundbreaking research that changes the world.”

A visionary with mechanical aptitude

Born in 1871, Ross had been a tinkerer throughout childhood and wanted to study engineering at Purdue. But he almost didn’t make it to college. His father, a farmer who expected Ross to pursue an agrarian career, thought that college would be a waste of time. Thankfully, the young man’s Uncle Will intervened, offering to house Ross in his Lafayette home and pay for his tuition and books.

Ross led a quiet college life, biographers note, and he reportedly received so-so grades for most of his coursework. His graduation, however, coincided with the birth of the automobile, presenting a golden opportunity for the visionary with mechanical aptitude. Returning to his family homestead, he began creating devices in the farm shop based on ideas from technical journals.

“He applied for patents on three working parts — a differential gear mechanism, a gear-shifting device and a rear-axle differential — and got them,” writes Jay Cooperider in a biographical document published by Tippecanoe County. “About the same time, he came up with the first of a number of patentable steering gears.”

In 1906, Ross founded the Ross Gear and Tool Company with his uncles Will and Linn, both seasoned salesmen. In 1914, Ross joined the City Council, a seat he held for four years. While World War I raged overseas, Ross’ plant contributed to the effort by manufacturing steering gears for military trucks. 

The year after the war ended, in 1918, the Ross family spun out a new company, Fairfield Manufacturing. In 1927, they founded yet another business, Rostone Corporation, to manufacture artificial stone from waste products such as fly ash, limestone and shale. While the company’s original product never took off, Rostone eventually reinvented itself into a manufacturer of electrical insulators.

Ross, in fact, seemed to have much more success than failure over his lifetime. All told, he patented 88 devices and made millions through his business ventures, much of that money going back to Purdue University. 

A passion for university-based research

“Ross’ reappearance at Purdue can be traced to 1920, when he was asked to serve on an alumni committee that since 1911 had been trying to raise money for a student union,” writes Cooperider. “When Ross joined the committee, $50,000 had been collected. Largely through his efforts, more than $500,000 was raised by the time the first part of the Memorial Union was completed in 1922.”

While soliciting alumni donations, Ross had heard grumbles that they wanted their alma mater to have a grand stadium like other universities. The newly minted board trustee got to work, and in 1924, two years after that hilltop negotiation with Ade, the Boilermakers played their first game in the new 13,000-person stadium.

Then Ross turned his attention to his true passion: university-based research and development. In 1930, several years after he began lobbying for the university to forge closer bonds with industry, the Purdue Research Foundation was incorporated. Ross seeded the venture with $25,000 in Ross Gear stock. 

Later, he purchased land west of campus for an airport and another tract overlooking the Wabash River for a surveying camp and football practice field (now the home of the county-owned Ross Camp). He also spearheaded development of the university’s first long-range master plan, a process that continues today. 

“His contributions touched every aspect of the university: athletics through Ross-Ade Stadium, student life through the Purdue Memorial Union, and education and research through the Purdue Research Foundation and Purdue Airport,” Harmeyer says. “This was the lasting mark he was able to leave on the world.”

When Ross arrived at Purdue as a freshman in 1889, she notes, the university had fewer than 500 students. By the time of his death, more than 8,000 students were enrolled, and the footprint of the university had more than quadrupled. “In addition to his own substantial contributions, he got to watch Purdue grow from a small, newly established university to a world-class research institution,” she says. 

Forever tied to the university

Ross died in 1943 after suffering a debilitating stroke the year before that left him unable to speak. His closest surviving family member was a sister. 

While Ross remained a bachelor until his death, local author Angie Klink has uncovered evidence of a long-term relationship between Ross and a Purdue staffer. Klink has written several Purdue-related books, including “Divided Paths, Common Ground: The Story of Mary Matthews and Lella Gaddis, Pioneering Purdue Women Who Introduced Science into the Home.”

Klink says that Gaddis, Indiana’s first state leader of home demonstration agents in Purdue’s Department of Agricultural Extension, lived her entire life with her sister, Kate, who kept line-a-day diaries from 1906 until 1946. Diary notations throughout the years mention Lella Gaddis having dinner with Ross, going on rides with him and visiting his country home, in what is now Ross Hills Park. 

“From evidence in Kate’s diaries of the amount of time Ross and Gaddis spent together, I say yes, it was serious,” she says. That evidence was backed up by information gleaned from a family member still living when Klink wrote her book. 

Unfortunately, the diaries from 1938 to 1944 are missing, so it’s unclear what transpired between the two in the last few years of Ross’ life. And there’s no evidence of why they never married, if they were indeed in love. Klink wonders if it was simply because they both led high-profile lives at Purdue. “Maybe they liked their independence and wanted to keep it that way,” she says. 

Ross was not a churchgoer, but the Gaddis sisters and many other Purdue folks belonged to Central Presbyterian Church, and that’s where his funeral was held. Afterwards, the university closed campus for two hours so that faculty, staff and students could attend a memorial service by Purdue Research Foundation. 

Ross, who at his request was buried on a knoll where Slayter Hill is now located, left most of his estate to Purdue, Home Hospital and several relatives. 

“In many ways, Purdue was his family and his home,” Harmeyer says. “I don’t think he would have chosen to be buried on Purdue’s campus if he hadn’t felt that his legacy was forever tied to the university and its success.”

2021 indiana community of the year!

The Indiana Chamber of  Commerce selected Greater Lafayette as the winner of its 2021 Community of the Year Award