Howard Lutnick lost his mother to cancer when he was a high school junior. And one week into his freshman year at Haverford College, his father died, too - the result of a tragic medical mistake.
That's when he got the phone call from Robert B. Stevens, then president of Haverford:
"Howard, your four years here are free."
Since then, Lutnick has been returning the kindness of the college that became a family when he most needed one.
Now 53 and chairman of Cantor Fitzgerald L.P. - a New York City financial firm that lost 658 employees in the World Trade Center attacks - Lutnick has become the college's largest donor, a distinction deepened on Saturday with the announcement of his $25 million gift.
The donation, part of which will pay for the most significant renovations to the library in 50 years, is the largest single gift in Haverford's 181-year history.
"It's transformational, an overused word for sure, but not here," said Daniel Weiss, president of the highly selective Main Line college of 1,200 students.
Lutnick said his motivation is simple: Love.
"Haverford was there for me," Lutnick said, "and taught me what it meant to be a human being."
In total, Lutnick, chairman of the college's board of managers, has given $65 million to the school over the last quarter century.
The gifts have been personal: The indoor tennis and track center bears the name of his brother Gary, also a Cantor Fitzgerald employee who died in 9/11. The integrated athletic center is named for his best friend, Douglas B. Gardner, and the arena inside for Calvin Gooding, both Haverford classmates and Cantor Fitzgerald employees who also died in the attack. Lutnick also funded the college's Cantor Fitzgerald Art Gallery.
Nothing carries his own name. Perhaps the library?
"Maybe," he said.
Lutnick's gift begins the public phase of a $225 million capital campaign. The college, Weiss said, has already raised over half the target in the quiet phase and aims to complete the goal by 2017.
The library, the heart of the campus, will get new technology, group study rooms, a spruced-up special collections area and other upgrades.
The son of a history professor and an artist, Lutnick was born in Long Island and went to high school in Jericho, N.Y. His mother died at 42 of lymphoma. His father, who taught at Queens College, directed him to Haverford.
"My dad said 'People who know, know Haverford,' " Lutnick recalled.
He left for school, not knowing that his father had colon cancer that had metastasized to his lungs. His father died on Sept. 12, 1979, he said, when a nurse gave him an overdose of a chemotherapy drug.
Lutnick, then a college freshman, felt like an astronaut floating in space.
"Without parents," he said, "you sort of lose the gravity that keeps your feet on the earth."
His extended family, he said, withdrew from Lutnick and his two siblings.
"They thought we would be sticky," he said, "that we would come over and never leave."
The University of Rhode Island told his sister, then a student there, that if she couldn't afford to pay, she should become a waitress, he said. That made the offer from Haverford more extraordinary.
"Since I had only been at the school for a week, they couldn't possibly have known about me," he said. "It was more about who they are as an institution than it was about me."
An economics major, Lutnick became captain of the tennis team, enjoyed the small class sizes and idyllic setting and made a group of friends that he continues to play golf with every year.
His first job out of school was at Cantor Fitzgerald. By age 29, he was running the place. At 35, he was chairman.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Lutnick would have perished with the rest of his employees, but he was taking his son, Kyle, to his first day of kindergarten. It was already a difficult time, just a day before the anniversary of his father's death - a time that had given him his first glimpse of Hell.
"I had climbed far, far out of Hell," he said. "On Sept. 11, I was back again."
He quickly got to the scene and ended up fleeing when the South Tower collapsed, unleashing a massive dust cloud.
"I look over my shoulder and there's a tornado following me," he recalled in speech. " . . . I dove under a car, the world went black. I thought for a while I was dead."
More than two-thirds of his employees died, including 26 sets of brothers. The company's philosophy had been to hire family and friends so the company was full of them.
In his grief, Lutnick recalled that seminal moment when the college saved him and he knew what he had to do: Help the families of his employees who were victims.
He rebuilt the company - which now includes BGC Partners and employs 8,000 globally - and for five years gave 25 percent of profits, $180 million in total, to the families. In addition, on Sept. 11 each year, his employees forgo a day's pay and the company donates that day's revenue - this year, about $12 million - to a variety of charities.
"We've turned the most difficult day into something beautiful," he said.
At Haverford, Lutnick - who lives in New York City with his wife and four children - has given to causes both large and small, said Weiss, Haverford's president since July 2013.
"He quietly pays to solve one problem or another," Weiss said. "One of the things about Howard that is extraordinary is what he wants to support is what the college needs."
Lutnick went to see a tennis match and thought the courts looked drab, so he refinished them. He funded a tuition scholarship for a student in need.
During a speech to students and parents at Haverford in 2011, he encouraged his audience to make the most of an opportunity to help someone.
"If you miss it, it's OK," he said. "You won't feel bad . . . It's if you see it and you grab it, you can change someone else's life, just as Haverford did for me. And I didn't know they did it for me until it was time for me to do it for someone else."