Chester Fritz Library

The Man, the Myth, the Legacy

Chester Fritz’s name is everywhere on campus, but few know his story.

Chester Fritz. The name is all over the University of North Dakota.

He funded the library, the auditorium, and several scholarships and professorships. Yet he didn’t graduate from UND, didn’t live in North Dakota after 1910, and only visited Grand Forks twice after leaving. In fact, he only lived in the U.S. for a few years in the early 1950s.

Much of Chester’s philanthropy to the University can be traced to his relationship with his aunt, Kathrine (Macdonald) Belanger Tiffany, class of 1902 and 1908. Kathrine and her first husband, Neil Macdonald, class of 1900, were innovative North Dakota educators. They took Chester in at age 13 when he was orphaned: his father was disabled and his mother ran away.

While he got his start in North Dakota, Chester Fritz would go on to make his home in many places throughout the world. His time in China – where his knowledge of the culture led to many successes in trading silver, and later gold – was a highlight. His later years as a private investor – in New York, Italy, Switzerland, and Monaco – were his most lucrative.

Pictures representing Chester’s life are shown below. From Chester’s early years scrapping for every meal, to his transformative relationship with his aunt, and his curiosity about what lies west (and Far East), the self-made man’s legacy lives on at UND.

Baby Chester Fritz

March 25, 1892: Chester Fritz is born in Buxton, N.D., to Anne and Charles Fritz.

Kathrine and Neil Macdonald

1904: Neil and (aunt) Kathrine Macdonald take Chester into their home in Lidgerwood, N.D.

Chester reading

Chester is a voracious reader. He excels living with his relatives, teachers in Lidgerwood. 

chester's grad class

1910: Chester is valedictorian in Lidgerwood and enters UND. Total enrollment: 906. 

und 1910

1910: Chester joins drama club; leaves UND after the spring semester. 

Chester graduated with an economics degree from the University of Washington in Seattle in 1914. He began working with Fisher Flouring Mills and moved to China in 1915. In 1917, World War I halted the flour business and Chester began a dangerous, six-month journey through Western China. He gained an understanding of Chinese culture. 

Chester's key lesson learned on the journey: "If you do not haggle in China, you do not survive!"

Chester is Mr. Silver

1921: Chester, hired by American Metal Company, moves to Shanghai to oversee silver imports. He earns the nickname, "Mr. Silver."

Chester on a horse

1925-41: Chester learns to ride horse and becomes competitive at an individual event called Shanghai Paper Hunts and team polo.

In 1929, Chester joined investment firm of Swan, Culbertson and Fritz, which handled all the American Metal Company orders in Shanghai. It was one of the most successful investment firms to operate in the Far East during the 1930s. He also married Bernardine Szold, an American journalist in 1929. 

While the 30s would be lucrative, Chester remembered 1941-46 as “the years of our discontent.” During that time, WWII and the Japanese takeover of Shanghai disrupted business; Chester was sent to an internment camp for 14 months; his marriage ended; and Swan Culbertson and Fritz struggled, closing its doors in 1947. After repatriation, Chester returned to Shanghai; the Chinese Communist Revolution ultimately pushed him to Hong Kong in 1947. The bright spot during the latter half of the decade was Chester’s success importing gold. 

Chester earns an honorary degree

1951: Chester returns to UND to receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.

Chester and Vera

1954: Chester marries Vera Kachalina. They move to Rome.  

Chester and the Starchers

July 1954: George W. Starcher is named UND president.

In 1950, Chester wrote his first check to UND for $10,000. 

The contribution "affords me a certain kind of pleasure and genuine satisfaction in that I am now able to express my gratitude for the benefits which I received as a student at the University of North Dakota ... This expression of gratitude may be somewhat tardy, but is nonetheless genuine."

After George W. Starcher became UND president, Fritz, his aunt Kathrine (Belanger) Macdonald Tiffany and Starcher formed an important relationship. According to author and historian Dan Rylance, the library would become a reality through Tiffany’s persistence, Starcher’s honesty, and Fritz’s loyalty. 

library under construction

Library under construction. 

On February 15, 1958, Chester’s gift of $1 million for the library was publicly announced. Prior to that, in 1956, he set up an irrevocable trust fund of $100,000 to be held in perpetuity, and authorized UND to award $5,000 annually in scholarships.

Chester at Library Dedicatio

Chester speaks at the library dedication during UND Homecoming, 1961. 

But I hope it will be a center where purposeful men and women do serious work, in preparing themselves for the larger serious work of the future.Chester Fritz Library Dedication, October 16, 1961

Between 1950 and 1969, Chester donated more than $2.25 million to the University. At that time, it was the largest amount ever given by a single UND alumnus. He described his gift of the library for the “campus mind” and the auditorium for the “campus heart.”

Chester Fritz auditorium

May 28, 1965: Chester donates $1 million to UND for a "distinctive auditorium." 

Auditorium Crowd

1972: Chester Fritz Auditorium dedication and first event: The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and the Philharmonic Choir. 

In 1977, Chester and Vera moved from Switzerland to Monte Carlo, where they would live until Chester's death on July 28, 1983. During that time, Chester would work with Dan Rylance, Chester Fritz Library archivist and assistant professor of history, to write "Ever Westward to the Far East - The Story of Chester Fritz." The book was published in 1982.

The Chester Fritz Library has been renovated several times over the years. In 1980, UND undertook a $4.5 million addition to the Chester Fritz Library, funded by the North Dakota Legislature. A six-year renovation, completed in 2021, is highlighted in the above video. 

Endowed Professors

The Chester Fritz Distinguished Professors pose with Tom Clifford (far left).

Fritz Leaves a Scholarly Legacy

Chester Fritz Distinguished Professorship

Awarded to UND’s most distinguished professors to recognize their excellence and contribution to the development of students. UND has awarded this honor to 88 professors; 27 are currently teaching.

Chester Fritz Scholarships

At least five annual scholarship awards of $800 each to undergraduates and one annual award of $1,000 to a post-graduate. Since 2004, there have been 373 recipients receiving $438,108. In fall 2023, 36 students received scholarships.

Neil Macdonald Scholarship Fund

Scholarships are awarded annually to two high-achieving graduate students, four undergraduate students pursuing any degree at UND, and one for academic achievement, Merit, Presidential or a transfer student.

K. B. Tiffany Scholarship

Annually awards a scholarship to one graduate student studying English and two undergraduate students studying English or History.

Information courtesy of: 

  • Burleson, Anna: Chester Fritz: More than a name in Grand Forks, Grand Forks Herald: May 15, 2016
  • Eriksmoen, Curt: Former UND student generously endowed his alma mater, Fargo Forum: Oct. 15, 2022
  • Fritz, Chester and Rylance, Dan. “Ever Westward to the Far East: The Story of Chester Fritz” (1982)
  • Urlacher, Brian. “The Library of Chester Fritz” (2022)
  • UND Art Collections: Chester Fritz in Shanghai (April 18-July 28, 2016)

Special thanks to Curt Hanson, Head of Special Collections, Chester Fritz Library