PALO ALTO, Calif. — Late one spring afternoon last year, a mystery man sat in the back of a creative-writing seminar at Stanford. Evidently a student, he was much older than anyone else in the room. He was wearing a black blazer and white Nikes. He said his name was Phil.As the days passed, the man’s identity gradually came into focus. The instructor “made several vague allusions to Phil taking off in his private jet,” recalls AndrÃ© Lyon, an English major enrolled in the class.
And tales about Michael Jordan found their way into the man’s literary discourse. After a couple of weeks, a rumor began to circulate that the old dude in the Nikes was Philip H. Knight, the billionaire founder of the world’s largest sportswear company….
Mr. Knight’s access to classes may have something to do with his pocketbook. Last year, Mr. Knight announced a $105 million donation to the Stanford Graduate School of Business, from which he graduated in 1962. His previous Stanford donations include a professorship at the business school, a graduate-school building and gifts to the athletic department, according to a university spokeswoman. Mr. Knight got his bachelor’s degree from the University of Oregon in 1959, and he makes big donations to Oregon, too.
Mr. Knight’s late-career academic journey began a few years ago, after he visited the campus office of Tobias Wolff, a novelist and Stanford English professor. Mr. Knight “said he wanted to do some writing,” and was looking for advice about where to begin, Mr. Wolff says.
Though notably older than his fellow students, Mr. Knight soon became a popular fixture on the Stanford campus, known for hosting after-class gatherings at Palo Alto bars with his wife, Penny, before taking a private jet back to his home outside Portland, Ore. “He’d always pay,” recalls Mr. Stillman.
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