1939: Alumnus Paul Alther and the donation of the Presidential Chain of Office

On particularly festive occasions such as Dies academicus or Graduation Days, the President of the University traditionally wears the golden Presidential Chain of Office. This Chain was a thank-you gift from a graduate, Paul Alther, to his alma mater.

It was an illustrious group of invited guests who attended the presentation of the President's Chain on 11 November 1939 in the office of the school president on Notkerstrasse. Besides the HSG President himself and the President of the Swiss Reinsurance Company and donor of the Chain, Paul Alther, those present at the ceremony included the current members of the Foundation and University Councils, honorary members of the Senate, the members of the University Commission, the board of the school’s alumni association, professors and other members of the teaching staff, three student representatives, and alumni representingg HSG’s student societies.

The presentation ceremony was preceded by a series of letters and conversations between Paul Alther, who had studied at the school from 1907 to 1909 and was an alumnus of the student society Mercuria San Gallensis, and Walther Hug, who was the school’s president in office. Alther had first informed Hug of his plans in a letter dated 8 June 1939. The year 1939 was exceptionally significant not only for him personally but for the school as well, since in this year, after protracted negotiations, it finally obtained the right to award doctoral degrees in Economics: 

'We old men, who became students at the commercial academy soon after its foundation and have since tried, with our humble efforts, to support the struggle that had already begun with the goal of establishing a university here in St. Gallen, are particularly happy that after tenacious efforts, in which you have taken such a splendid part, the goal has at last been achieved. [...] On the occasion of my 25th anniversary in the service of the Swiss Reinsurance Company, which I was recently able to celebrate, I remembered with particular gratitude my alma mater in St. Gallen, which has helped me to fulfil my professional tasks to such an outstanding degree. I feel the need to take this opportunity to make a visual statement of my gratitude. [...] The school has achieved the dignified position to which it had aspired, but, as I have been told, it lacks the external insignia that would express its rank among its distinguished peers, namely the Presidential Chain of Office. I would be very glad if the school were to accept this Chain from me as a token of my gratitude and devotion.'

The president's positive response followed promptly, and the first details of the planned chain were discussed as early as 13 June 1939, when Alther thanked for the president for his willingness. It was important to Alther, he wrote, that the Chain should be made locally by artisan craftsmen of St. Gallen. After a thorough search, the choice fell on the St. Gallen goldsmith Ernst Frischknecht, who hand-crafted the precious chain in 18-carat gold in the style of an anchor chain. Its focal point is a golden disc that measures 8 cm in diameter and shows a bear, the city’s heraldic animal, in the middle, around which the inscription reads: 'Handels-Hochschule St.Gallen'. A second gold disc of slightly more than 3 cm in diameter, above it, shows the earth globe with its continents and oceans. On the back of the large disc one can read engraved words stating the purpose of the donation, namely to express Alther’s gratitude to his alma mater for the 'wealth of academic and ethical values' he received from it during his study time from 1907 to 1909. The inscription is signed 'Paul Alther November 1939'.

It was thus a very special moment when the Chain was presented on 11 November 1939, a moment which was celebrated with a dignity appropriate to the distressing circumstances of the time – World War II had just broken out on 1 September – rather than with festive cheer. In his thank-you speech, President Hug paid tribute to Paul Alther as someone who had been a loyal and tireless supporter of the school for many years. The Chain was taken as an expression of solidarity and a shining example of loyalty and devotion: the Chain’s links, thus joined together, stood for the academic community, and the earth globe for teaching and research activities across the whole world. The engraved medallion, with its depiction of a bear, referred to St. Gallen's proud tradition. The precious fabric stood for truth, and the diligent craftsmanship stood for tireless work in the service of truth. Fabric, form and work together symbolised peace and freedom. Accordingly, the Chain should also be an incentive for future generations to dedicate themselves tirelessly to science and academic knowledge, to the world of intellectual discovery and to the truth. The Chain was taken to express an obligation to lead the school as dynamically as possible from the fateful challenges of the present into a new period of peace. Hug concluded his address with a request "to the divine Creator of all things": "Quod felix, faustum fortunamque sit Alma Mater San Gallensis" (“May the Alma Mater of St. Gallen be happy, pros-perous and fortunate”). The occasion ended with a banquet at the Hotel Hecht.

Paul Alther received an honorary doctorate from the school in 1951 "in recognition of his outstanding services to Swiss reinsurance relations". After his death in 1961, his heirs bequeathed a generous financial donation to the school, upon which the annual award of the Paul Alther Prize for the year’s best Master's thesis in Law and Political Science still draws today.