Benjamin N. Kightlinger ’51’s $7.3 million bequest to Amherst left the classmates who knew him best amazed but not entirely surprised. “Here’s a guy who comes out of the quiet back row of the class with this incredibly generous gesture,” says Fred Luddy ’51, who first met Kightlinger when they were seventh-graders in the Amherst public schools. “But then, Ben was always very modest about his achievements. He was not one to make a splash.”
Kightlinger made more than a splash with his seven-figure gift for scholarships and the College endowment. This bequest brought the class of 1951’s 65th reunion gift to more than $9.5 million, making it the largest 65th reunion gift in Amherst’s history—$1 million more than the 50th and 60th reunion gifts combined from this steadfastly generous class. “Ben was a quiet scholar and a focused person,” notes Luddy. “His giving was also quiet and focused—and powerful because of it.”
Kightlinger, who died in 2013, grew up in Amherst, the son of a UMass professor. He was valedictorian at Amherst High. In college he majored in biology and belonged to the Pre-Med Club, Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi and Theta Xi.
John Kirkpatrick ’51 met Kightlinger on his first day at the College: “I was walking around campus with my parents, and Ben was doing the same with his. My father said to Ben’s father, ‘I don’t know you, but your name is Kightlinger.’ Everyone was surprised.” It turned out Kirkpatrick’s father had a cousin in Pennsylvania whose name was Kightlinger and who bore an uncanny resemblance to the man standing on the quad. The Kightlingers invited the Kirkpatricks to dinner at their home that evening. “I didn’t know anyone at Amherst, and it was neat to meet someone on the very first day,” Kirkpatrick says. “Ben and I were friends for a long time.”
Their class was the first to experience the New Curriculum’s required core courses. “There was no significant access to electives until junior year,” says Luddy. “Those of us at Amherst during the era of the New Curriculum felt we got our nickel’s worth. It was rigorous, but Ben was more than a match for it.”
After graduating summa cum laude, Kightlinger earned his M.D. at Harvard, continued his studies in neurology and internal medicine in the U.S. Army, and then settled in New York City. After a decade-long private practice in internal medicine, he joined the Mobil Corp., overseeing medical clinics at points across the globe where Mobil prospected or produced oil.
Despite the extensive international travel that marked his career, Kightlinger was both town and gown. “For us ‘townies,’ it was a golden age,” says Luddy. “There was not a lot in the way of guidance, structure or talent-searching, but if you got in and maintained good standing, the Amherst experience was free. The College made something possible for Ben, from which he squeezed all the juice he could. And he chose to give back.”
Kightlinger’s generosity has a resounding impact. The Benjamin N. Kightlinger 1951 Scholarship Fund, which he created in 2009, will now make an Amherst education possible for multiple students each year in perpetuity. Luddy says this would please his friend: “Ben looked straight ahead, and I think he would be touched to see his gift at work, embodied in opportunities for those entering Amherst today.”
Mitchell Skiles ’17, who majored in mathematics, philosophy and computer science, is among those who benefitted from the fund. “Amherst has become a home to me,” he says. “I have been challenged intellectually and individually and learned how to question the world around me and myself. I wish I could thank Dr. Kightlinger for the scholarship that helped put Amherst in my reach.”