The plan for a Winston Churchill library and research center at George Washington University took shape on a cocktail napkin at a hotel bar in Grosvenor Square in London.
Stephen Trachtenberg, the former president of GWU, sketched it out after dinner with his friend Laurence Geller, a British hotel magnate and Churchill authority.
By the end of the evening, Trachtenberg had persuaded Geller to donate his personal collection of Churchill writings to the university and to procure $8 million so that it could be properly curated and shared.
Like many successful university presidents, Trachtenberg is a master fundraiser. Once he had proposed that Geller donate his collection to the university, and he had found the prospective donor receptive, Trachtenberg kept going.
“In the fundraising business, you don’t stop talking until they stop listening,” he said.
The beneficiary is GWU, which will soon house a national center for research and scholarship on the former British prime minister and statesman.
The story begins 15 years ago, when a Chicago nonprofit called the Churchill Centre first contacted Trachtenberg looking for space at GWU to host Washington events.
Trachtenberg worked hard during his two-decade presidency to take advantage of his university’s location in central Washington. Playing host to the Churchill Centre was a natural.
As his 2007 retirement approached, Trachtenberg accepted an invitation from the Churchill Centre to hold a dinner in his honor at the Four Seasons hotel. Geller showed up. Trachtenberg asked who he was. “Well,” he replied, “I own this hotel.” He also serves as chairman of the Centre.
They struck up a friendship. Trachtenberg took to staying at the Marriott in Grosvenor Square (not to be confused with the like-named community in Bethesda) after Geller offered him a room at the same rate he was paying at a more modest London hotel.
Trachtenberg had become a devotee of Churchill over his years interacting with the Chicago organization: “He’s just a fascinating guy and someone whose example adds value to everything he was associated with,” he said.
On a London visit about a year ago, Trachtenberg and his wife walked into a favorite Chinese restaurant across from the hotel and found Geller there, dining alone. They joined him. That meal led to drinks in the hotel bar.
Trachtenberg knew Geller had a formidable Churchill collection and had thought of approaching him about donating it to the university. That night, “I took out a napkin and outlined for him why he should give his Churchill collection to GW,” he said.
Geller warmed to the idea. Trachtenberg fell into full fundraising mode. The conversation proceeded along these lines: Well, if you’re going to donate your collection, then we ought to raise funds for a curator. And there ought to be an endowed chair who can study Churchill and modern British history. And we’ll need money to hold events and create exhibits.
Trachtenberg sketched out each item on his napkin. “We finally totalled it up. It was about $8 million,” he said.
Geller’s attention never wavered. After that meeting, Trachtenberg arranged a meeting between Geller’s people and senior GWU officials.
“Eventually, the plan that Geller and I had mapped out in the Chinese restaurant evolved, almost without any change, into what you see today,” Trachtenberg said.