In 1912, a fourteen year old named Harri Kosove dropped out of the eighth grade to help support his family. Harri took the only job he could find. His starting salary was $7 a week. Seventy years later, in 1982, the University of South Florida announced that Harrison and Ruth Kosove had given the largest single private philanthropic gift in the institution’s history. This is the Kosove Story.
Born in Kiev, Russia, Harri’s father came to the U.S. as a stowaway, landing in San Francisco, California. Over the years he found his way to New York and became an American citizen. Harri was born in 1898 in New York but later moved to Philadelphia where he spent most of his adult life.
The influence of his first employer, a painting contractor and Civil War veteran named Henry S. Rau, impacted Harri’s life dramatically. Rau had a great gift for the young boy…he taught Harri how to work hard at what was at first, a very difficult job. Harri had said, “I’d sworn never to have anything to do with paint, because my father was a painter and every night he would come home smelling of turpentine. I couldn’t stand that smell.” But Harri learned to stand it. He also learned accounting and chemistry at what is now Drexel University. Soon he was managing the financial accounts for his employer and formulating job estimates. His salary rose to $12 a week and he was noticed by competitors. One of them offered him a job at $25 a week. Harri wanted to turn it down, but how could he? Mr. Rau, his boss, encouraged Harri to give it a try, so Harri moved on to another painting business.
Harri continued to visit Mr. Rau, and a couple of years later he was shocked when Mr. Rau said, “I know why you keep coming to see me—you want to be my partner.” Over the years Harri had saved approximately $1,200, and with Mr. Rau investing $5,000, together they opened the Henry S. Rau Company. The company received its first big break in 1926 when the two men were awarded the painting and decoration contract for the sesquicentennial celebration in Philadelphia. More big successes followed:
The Democratic National Convention Hall in 1936
The Walt Whitman Bridge
The Pennsylvania Railroad Station in Philadelphia
The Naval Armory in Arlington
The Battleship USS Hawaii
The Navy Annex in Washington D.C.
The Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia
And several hotel chains
Harri lived by the slogan, "Work hard and you can make it." He also believed that one person can make a difference. Harri Kosove married late at the age of 45. He said, "I'd made a lot of money and thought I was having fun doing the things a young man with money does. Then I met Ruth and realized I hadn't really been having fun at all." He retired in 1962 and moved to Sebring, Florida, ten years later.
Harri and Ruth chose to invest in USF because it was a young, dynamic university full of promise. He said, "USF is a vibrant, and growing university, not hampered by the traditions of an older school.” Harri said he hoped that by providing a scholarship fund to educate bright American students, he could help spread the gospel of American exceptionalism. He wanted to bring about a resurgence of American greatness. Even Harri thought that sounded a little corny, but he said, "It's that kind of corn that made us a great nation."
"There's a great need to create more understanding among Americans," Harri Kosove said. "An adversarial system is too prevalent in today's society. I'm hoping the donation will produce scholars who will try to break down barriers." At 84 years of age, he wanted to repay the country that gave his family a chance at a better life. Harri often said: “The future is with our young people."
Three years following their remarkable contribution to the University, Harri and Ruth Kosove were given something in return. Both received honorary doctorates of humane letters at USF's commencement ceremonies held in April 1985. They were nominated by John Osterlund, who received the first Kosove scholarship.
As Harri expected, USF continued to grow in terms of its student population, campus life, research opportunities, and national and international reputation. But back in 1988, USF President Frank Borkowski said future historians writing about USF may very well conclude, "through the generous support of the Kosove Society, USF was led into the 21st
On September 12, 1988, Harrison Kosove passed away. Ruth, however, remained an active part of the Kosove Society. Her love for each of the Kosove Scholars was obvious. The scholars often visited Ruth at her home during the summer and for holidays. Each year, Ruth personally welcomed each new member of the Kosove Society. In 1994, she extended the formal Induction Ceremony to include a weekend of activities designed to foster the goals of the Kosove Society: to encourage academic excellence and critical thinking, to foster future leaders, to serve the community, and to foster a network of friends and professionals among current Kosove Society scholars and alumni.
Ruth passed away on September 16, 1997. At the 1997 Honors College Convocation, USF President Castor remarked, "As we focus on excellence this afternoon, I would like to pay tribute to a family whose lives stood for excellence as a principle of living. Ruth and Harri Kosove, who endowed the USF Kosove Society, were among the very first major donors to the University of South Florida. Like so many others who came after them, the Kosove family adopted USF. Uniquely, they built the program which bears their name into a true community of scholars. They wanted to provide scholarship assistance for students who embody not only academic talent, but also human compassion and sensitivity to the human condition.”
The Kosove Society continues to thrive today. The endowment has provided for undergraduate and graduate scholarships, funds for professional and academic development, a thriving alumni society, and faculty awards for excellence in student mentorship and civic engagement. In 2012, the Kosove Society inducts its 100th scholar. We give our deepest thanks to Harri and Ruth Kosove for their contribution to the USF community.