Friday October 10, 2003
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A Look Back at Tech History: Dean Griffin’s “slush fund” used to help those in need

In a real-life version of the movie Pay It Forward, former Tech dean George Griffin used connections to secure loans for students-and then, returned loans were used to help others

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Photo courtesy 1949 Blueprint

Dean Griffin used his personal and business connections to secure money that he loaned to needy students. The loans were always paid back, and he would retain them in his “Hip Pocket Fund” to give to future students.

By Joshua Cuneo Senior Staff Writer

Imagine obtaining college funds without working, without fulfilling scholarship requirements and without paying back an interest-laden loan.

Interested yet? For students who attended Tech prior to the 1990s, such an ideal system, while never officially endorsed by the Institute, was a reality.

The system in question was Dean Griffin’s behind-the-scenes Hip Pocket Fund, an informal slush fund that helped financially needy students meet their academic expenses.

It began in the 1920s, when students who were short on funds approached the dean and requested a short-term loan.

“Whether it was to pay their tuition, their check didn’t come from home, they lost their job, whatever their need might be, they could approach the dean and be fairly certain that he would be supportive of their needs,” said Marilyn Somers, Director of the Living History Program at Georgia Tech.

The dean would proceed to contact one of his many friends in the upper ranks of the community-often presidents of banks or local utility companies who could afford to issue the loan.

Then, without notice, the student would find a check in his mailbox days later. “[The dean was] very abrupt about it,” Somers said.

The student was instructed by the dean to give his word of honor to repay the money when possible.

According to Somers, all promises were followed through. “The money came back to Dean Griffin all the time,” she said. “The students were wonderful.”

However, the borrowing money had a twist. “Instead of sending the money back to where it came from, he would dole it out again to whomever he had on his waiting list,” said Somers. That enabled the program to expand into something of a revolving “scholarship” for needy students.

And despite his infamous absentmindedness, Griffin kept an accurate mental record of all transactions.

“He had this interesting way of keeping track of a lot of money going into a lot of needy students’ hands,” said Somers.

Griffin could correctly identify who owed how much money and who had already paid their loans back. Yet surprisingly, he never maintained written records of the system.

The popularity and success of the system helped it grow rapidly, and Griffin maintained it throughout his entire career at Tech.

By his retirement in the 1980s, thousands of students had credited Griffin’s Hip Pocket Fund with providing the financial means for them to remain in school during economically strenuous times.

“He went on record saying no student had ever gypped him,” said Somers.

“They always paid him back; they always wrote kind letters and he would often pass the letters on to his corporate friends and the bank presidents...letting them know how grateful the kids were for giving them that hand up,” she said.

Furthermore, Griffin bore a personality that demanded students follow through on their word.

According to Somers, Griffin was reputed for being abrupt with the student body and could develop a terrible, commanding presence toward anybody who offended him.

“In those days, being on the Dean’s List was not a good thing,” Somers laughed.

However, Griffin probably could not have effectively executed a similar system today.

It was a product of its time. Griffin’s solid reputation with the student body-as well as the small, enclosed nature of Tech society in the early to mid-20th century and the sense of honor that strongly pervaded the community at the time- made the system a practical one.

Nowadays, the inherent nature of society both at Tech and within the surrounding community has shifted at a fundamental level. People have become more transient, and the Tech student body is now too large for one person to coordinate the informal exchange of funds.

In addition, the heavily political climate of the more recent decades have discouraged unrestrained provisions of loans, and students seeking such funds might find themselves facing a barrage of bureaucracy and red tape.

Also, the exponential increase in the presence of Fortune 500 companies, coupled with the doubling and tripling of Tech’s student body since the 1920s, makes it impossible to become familiar with the entire student body and to acquire the social network needed to provide them with loans.

Even the most prominent officials, said Somers, can only maintain connectivity with so many people. “It was a much more informal society; it was a much more enclosed society,” she explained.

“We didn’t have the internet and email,” she said. “Telephones were considered extremely progressive when [Griffin] started out here in the 20s. Everybody didn’t have those, but as they got the telephone, he built up his network.”

“No single person could do something like that today,” Somers said.

That means that, for the most part, modern Tech students are forced to resort to the old standbys-jobs, scholarships, loans and gifts from home.

However, in memory of the good ol’ days, Student Affairs does run the Dean Griffin Hip Pocket Fund program, which offers emergency, interest-free loans of up to $250 to students.

The fund became yet another aspect of Griffin’s growth into a Tech legend, and students studying his statue in front of the Ferst Center might notice some bills peeking out of his shirt pocket.

He was, said Somers, “a unique man with a unique system at a different time."