Stetson University is fighting a legal battle with the estate of a deceased donor hoping to recoup the bulk of a $1.5 million pledged gift.

Chauncey Paul Johnson’s connection with Stetson ran three generations for more than a century. From 1905 to 1947, his grandfather was a trustee at the private DeLand school and he donated the family home to Stetson. Johnson’s parents fell in love there when they were both students. Eventually, Johnson himself became a trustee there in 2006.

Perhaps with that history in mind, the school’s president sent a letter to Johnson, a successful Chicago banker and entrepreneur, seeking a donation in 2005 for its 125th anniversary. The deal was donors could obtain the naming rights for a new dormitory in exchange for giving a legacy gift, a federal lawsuit said.

Johnson promised to pay $1.5 million if the school named the facility Hon Hall after his mother’s maiden name, the court documents said. The school unveiled the plaque for the dorm in 2007, inviting Johnson and his family and Stetson officials to a ceremony.

But years later, the school never received the full $1.5 million, according to the lawsuit amended this month after originally being filed in April in U.S. District’s California Northern District Court.

Johnson made six payments equaling about $600,000 over five years, the documents said. The 83-year-old died last year from complications from a blood disorder in Napa, Calif.

Now, Stetson has sued Frederick Acker, who represents Johnson’s estate and his trust, as well as Johnson’s charitable foundation to recoup the $900,000 plus interest and court costs.

“Mr. C. Paul Johnson was proud to generously support Stetson University with his time as a Trustee and his many financial contributions during his lifetime,” said Acker’s attorney, Marisa Chun, in an email. “While we believe that Stetson’s claims are not supported by the law, we hope to resolve our differences amicably with the University.”

A Stetson spokeswoman declined to comment other than to say in a statement that the school had close ties with the Johnson family.

“We appreciate the connection the family has maintained with Stetson and look forward to our association continuing in the future,” the statement said.

Before his death, Johnson sent a handwritten to note to Stetson that said “Incidentally Just FYI – The entire amount is paid in case of death,” the lawsuit says. Part of his agreement also said his estate would continue to make payments if he died, it also said.

After Johnson died, Stetson filed a creditor’s claim in probate court to fight for the balance.

The personal representative of Johnson’s estate refused to pay, which led Stetson to sue.

Currently, 48 students live in the red brick dormitory surrounded by palm trees.

“As of the date of filing suit, Hon Hall at Stetson University continues to be named ‘Hon Hall’ and remains among the most popular student housing at Stetson,” the lawsuit said.

Story by: Gabrielle Russon, Reporter, Orlando Sentinel
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