In Memory: Laurentian, Actor, Philanthropist Kirk Douglas ’39 | St. Lawrence University

In Memory: Laurentian, Actor, Philanthropist Kirk Douglas ’39

A devoted and proud Laurentian who was one of the most recognized names on the silver screen, Mr. Kirk Douglas ’39 died on February 5, 2020, at the age of 103.

“Kirk Douglas has been transcendently generous to St. Lawrence University and remained committed to his alma mater and our students throughout the decades," said St. Lawrence University President William L. Fox. "Kirk knew that diversity made St. Lawrence and the world stronger because of his own background and experiences. Every Laurentian can certainly say, 'I am Spartacus.'” 

Named among the 50 greatest screen legends of all time by the American Film Institute, Mr. Douglas had appeared in more than 85 films, including classics such as Spartacus, Lonely Are the Brave, Lust for Life, and Gunfight at the OK Corral. He was also the producer of Spartacus, a significant and principled moment in history, because he was the first in Hollywood to hire a black-listed writer who had been unemployed for many years owing to the insidious effects of McCarthyism, an anti-communist movement in America occurring at the start of the Cold War. Mr. Douglas received an honorary Academy Award in 1995.

Mr. Douglas grew up in Amsterdam, New York, and graduated from St. Lawrence University with a degree in English. While attending St. Lawrence, he was president of the student government organization and a member of the wrestling team and German club. He also participated in dramatic productions on campus. The University awarded him an honorary degree in 1958.

In a 2015 article he wrote for what is now known as the HuffPost, Douglas said it was his “chutzpah” that got him into St. Lawrence.

“I had $164 I could put toward tuition,” Mr. Douglas wrote. “It got me into my first play, ‘Spring Again,’ singing a telegram to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy. It was produced by Katherine Cornell and her husband Guthrie McClintock, the first couple of Broadway. That Thanksgiving I was invited to their house and drank champagne and ate caviar. The Thanksgiving before, I was in line at the Salvation Army for my free turkey meal.”

Kirk and his wife Anne Douglas founded the Los Angeles-based Douglas Foundation in 1964 to focus primarily on health and educational programs.

In 1999, they established the Kirk Douglas Scholarship to help young people from backgrounds similar to Kirk’s own formative years during the Great Depression. They increased the scholarship substantially as part of the Campaign for Every Laurentian with an additional donation, bringing the total to $7.5 million. The Kirk Douglas Scholarship is specifically meant to promote diversity on campus by giving awards to underrepresented students who excel academically.

In 2015, Money magazine named the Kirk Douglas Scholarship among its list of seven celebrities who help students afford their college education.

He was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1981 and the National Medal of the Arts in 2001. In addition, he is a best-selling author, having written eleven books including a book of poetry titled Life Could be Verse. As a playwright, his recent one-man show “Before I Forget” was acclaimed by audiences in Los Angeles.

In 2014, St. Lawrence University named its newest building and residential facility Kirk Douglas Hall. The residence hall also includes the popular Spartacus Café.