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Faculty Profile: Don Robbins and Greg Smith

Professors and Students Solve a Mystery

When Professor Don Robbins saw the item on an antique auction site—an original Standard Oil Trust stock certificate issued from Henry Flagler to his second wife, Ida Alice—he knew he had to have it. As an art collector, a Flagler College professor, and a resident of downtown St. Augustine, he found the stock certificate too intriguing to pass up. And after chatting about the certificate with his colleague, Professor Greg Smith, he also found that he had stumbled on an incredible opportunity to share with his students.

Don Robbins and Greg SmithProfessors Robbins and Smith, both Mathematics faculty, put their heads together to develop an interdisciplinary Learning Community course entitled “The Yin and Yang of Mathematics.” The focus of the joint project for the Learning Community was to determine the answers to two questions: 1) How much would the stock certificate, issued in 1883, be worth in today’s dollars? and 2) What was the possible motivation for the gift?  

The Learning Community brought together Prof. Robbins’ Statistics students and Prof. Smith’s College Algebra students, all of whom were first-term freshmen. The students got busy, applying mathematic concepts (exponentials, geometric means, radicals, and interpretations) to divine the certificate’s value by today’s standards. They also applied concepts from other disciplines, including history, finance, accounting, politics, and law, to develop theories that would explain the circumstances of the gift.

“The exciting thing about this project was that none of us knew what we were going to find,” said Prof. Smith. “Because Department of Labor inflation information only goes back to 1912, and stock valuation and dividend information is very sparse for the late 1800s, the research was challenging. Prof. Robbins and I really were not sure what would happen. It was amazing for us, and for the students, to begin to unearth answers.”

Prof. Robbins agreed. “It’s rare for undergraduates to have the opportunity to do original research,” he said. “And this Learning Community had them doing it in their first semester at college. Not only that, it gave them a very personal connection to their environment. They were finding out things about Henry Flagler that nobody ever knew. It was very exciting.”

In the end, the Learning Community solved one mystery and came up with a convincing theory for the other. The stock certificate, which represented 1,060 shares, was determined to have been worth $79,500 in 1883, a figure that amounts to nearly $2 million in today’s USD. And the reason for the gift? Given that the shares were presented to Ida Alice in 1883 and subsequently cancelled in 1898, the students determined that the certificate was most likely a wedding gift, and that the cancellation was likely related to Ida’s final admission to an institution for mental illness. The stock certificate was cancelled close to the time that a trust fund was established for Ida Alice’s care.

The original certificate was donated to the Board of Trustees of Flagler College in the Spring of 2013.

Standard Oil Trust stock certificate issued from Henry Flagler to his second wife, Ida Alice