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Fanfare surrounds visit of Carnegie kin from Scotland

Friday, October 20, 2000

By Dennis B. Roddy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

By the time he died, Andrew Carnegie's fortune was something around $7 billion, and great-granddaughter Margaret Thomson's share is grazing in a field near Inverness, Scotland.

"I'm a livestock farmer," Thomson said last night. "And I have absolutely no ability with money at all."

So, as the trustees of Carnegie Mellon University, the school great-grandfather Andrew started 100 years ago, gather to honor his descendants, they'll be presenting the Founder's Medallion to a Scottish sheep and cattle herder who didn't even attend college.

The scion of America's most fabled industrialists received enough of the legacy, through her grandmother and mother, to buy a sheep and cattle farm near the fabled Skibo Castle.

And that's all.

"He gave away his fortune," Thomson said. "He didn't intend us to be wealthy -- which was quite right. He believed the man who dies rich dies dishonored.

"I firmly believe he made it. I don't feel unlucky -- I've done well. What he's done with his money is marvelous."

Thomson, accompanied by her brother-in-law, Gavin Suggett, was dressed in the Carnegie family tartan as she greeted hundreds of guests at last night's reception inside Dinosaur Hall at The Carnegie and got a look at what her great-grandfather did with his money.

There was Diplodocus Carnegii, the humongous dinosaur dug up in 1899 on a Carnegie-financed expedition. Next to it stood Apatosaurus Louisae -- another of Carnegie's dinosaurs named in honor of his wife, who apparently didn't mind.

Thomson and Suggett are guests of architect and CMU alumnus Lucian Caste, who became close to the family during visits to Scotland.

"He had an incredible vision of what his money should do," Caste said. "We just hope that he can appreciate, in his eternity, what his money has been able to do."

Andrew Carnegie, who died in New York in 1919, was a living presence in the life of Thomson, who rattled off names, dates, places with the familiarity of family.

"The thing that people don't realize was that my great-grandfather was born in 1835, but my grandmother, who I was quite close with, only died in 1990. So it encompasses a 150-year span," she said.

Thomson's grandmother, Margaret Carnegie Miller, allowed Thomson's family the use of Skibo Castle on holidays.

"We ran wild," she said. "There was a log cabin on an island we stayed in. We wandered on the moors."

And, of course, she absorbed the family history.

But until yesterday, she hadn't visited Pittsburgh. In fact, Andrew Carnegie himself visited what became Carnegie Tech only five times, never staying more than a day, said campus historian Ted Fenton.

"I don't know if his daughter ever came," Fenton said. In today's dollars, Carnegie's investment in the school amounts to $450 million. The Mellon family, whose name was appended to Carnegie's in the 1960s, gave the equivalent of $650 million.

Last night's reception helped kick off a weekend of centennial and homecoming events at CMU.

At 2 p.m. today, at the University Center, celebrants will cut into a tartan-decorated cake, receive free T-shirts, and get to meet an Andrew Carnegie impersonator.

An Alumni Awards Program will include the medallion presentation to Thomson, the drama school will present a world premier of "Appointment in Samarra," and the traditional Scottish music of -- OK, it's actually "Blues Traveller" -- will finish the day at the Hamerschlag Mall.

"She doesn't quite know what to do about all of this fuss," said Fenton.

In fact, the Thomsons are a very unassuming family. Suggett learned as much when he was courting Margaret's sister, Louise.

"I didn't know anything about the connection with Carnegie for a year," he said. "It was also a bit of a shock to them that I hadn't heard of him. I suppose it's a generational thing."

Margaret said her great-grandfather is known a bit in the British Isles, primarily for his libraries and the organs he donated to churches.

As a child in Scotland, she remembered the occasional moments in shops when children asked their mothers for impossibly expensive things.

"They'd say, 'Who do you think I am -- Andrew Carnegie?'"

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