This speech was presented April 19, 2007, to members of the Vanderbilt Aid Society by Lyle Lankford, senior officer for university history and protocol at Vanderbilt University.
From its very founding, Vanderbilt University has been obliged to women who came to the rescue to make dreams reality. It’s a fascinating story:
Vanderbilt University was founded 136 years ago with a generous gift made by a New York City businessman, purported to be the richest man in America, to a bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South living in Nashville, Tenn. What would prompt this uneducated, coarse 79-year-old spendthrift, not known for another philanthropic deed, to make this magnanimous offer to a Southern minister to build a university in the South? The answer may be summed up very simply: “Southern charm” and “charming women”!
Let’s go back in time. The dream of a Methodist university of “the highest order”—as it was eventually referred to in the charter—went back as far as the 1850s. These lofty ideas were genuine, but the church could not raise sufficient funds to make the dream a reality. At the forefront of this movement was Holland Neimans McTyeire, born in South Carolina, educated in Virginia, and minister to several churches throughout the South. While serving as a young minister at the St. Francis Street Church in Mobile, Ala., he fell in love with one of its lovely young members, Amelia Townsend, whom he later gained permission to marry. In one account of this love story, the young Miss Townsend is described as a “Belle of Mobile.” We know that she was possessed of a beautiful and charitable character and that the union, as you will see, was extremely propitious [SEE PHOTO 1].
Their work eventually brought them to Tennessee, where McTyeire assumed the duty as editor of the church’s publication, the Nashville Advocate, in 1858. When the Union Army occupied Nashville early in the Civil War, McTyeire fled with his wife and children to rural Alabama where he continued to preach. Holland McTyeire was ordained a bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South in 1866 at the age of 42 and moved back to Nashville, the administrative and publishing center of the church. With the devastation of the South by the war, the dream of a university for the training of young men wishing to go into the ministry grew even dimmer. Nevertheless, with not so much as a glimmer of hope, the leaders of the church went so far as to call for the drawing up of a charter in 1872. The institution of “the highest order,” which was to be called Central University, existed only on paper and in the minds of its faithful advocates.
In the spring of the following year, as fate—or providence—or plotting would have it, the bishop required medical attention which took him to New York City. Following surgery he was to convalesce in the home of his wife’s first cousin, Frank Armstrong Crawford, and her husband, Cornelius Vanderbilt. Frank and Amelia, whose mothers were half-sisters, grew up together in Mobile, where they had formed strong bonds of friendship lasting a lifetime.
Frank’s parents had very unwisely vowed to name their unborn child (no matter the sex) in honor of their best friend, Frank Armstrong. And so it was that she became Frank—not Frances, not Frankie, and not Francine [SEE PHOTO 2]. Following their ruin by the Civil War, Frank, an accomplished musician and music teacher, and her widowed mother moved from Mobile to New York City to seek their fortune. S-U-C-C-E-S-S—the day they decided to call on their very distant cousin, Cornelius Vanderbilt!
Never in the Navy, Cornelius received the nickname “Commodore” because of his skill as a boatman. As a teenager he had borrowed from his mother $100 with which he purchased a small boat that he used as a ferry between their home on Staten Island and Manhattan. After one year he was able to repay his mother and to buy another boat. As business boomed, he continued to add to his fleet. When steam-powered boats became available, he invested in them and expanded his services to trans-Atlantic transport. Finally, prompted by his eldest son, he entered the railroad industry by buying up small up-state New York railroads, linking them and expanding services. This venture eventually led to the New York Central Railroad, bringing in the wealth by the carloads. Thus, the Vanderbilt fortune was accumulated by boat and by train.
With very little formal education, Cornelius Vanderbilt was a shrewd, but sometimes ruthless, businessman. Of his tightfistedness, it was said that if he saw someone approaching who, he thought, might ask him for a cigar, he would cross the street to avoid the meeting.
Married for over 50 years to his first cousin, Sophia Johnson, the couple had 13 children. To his chagrin, nine of them were girls. To his greater sorrow, his eldest son never met up to his expectations; his second son and namesake was epileptic and considered an embarrassment; the third son, George, died in infancy; and the fourth son, George, in whom he had great hope, died as a young man during the Civil War.
After Sophia’s death, Cornelius became deeply involved in Spiritualism and other pastimes which caused embarrassment to his grown children, who by that time were edging their way into New York society. Imagine their relief when they heard of their father’s new interest in an upstanding relative; imagine their disdain when they found that the woman was younger than they and even younger than some of their children!
But the crusty old Commodore found gentility in the young Frank Crawford, his first cousin twice removed, whom he married at the age of 75. Frank was 30, a devout Methodist, and devoted to her mother, who lived with the newlyweds! (However, the arrangement seemed to be a happy one.)
So, undoubtedly, groundwork had been laid before Cousin Amelia’s husband, the bishop, arrived on their doorstep in 1873. Cornelius had idolized the first president of the United States; hence, two sons had been named George. And as he grew older, the Commodore began to plan for a memorial to himself. Frank, no doubt, talked him out of the idea for an obelisk similar to that of the Washington Monument to be erected in Central Park. Quite possibly, she had pointed out the economic state of the South, which had been virtually destroyed by the recent war, and the importance of educational institutions to the rebuilding process, thus planting the seed which the bishop would water.
During the bishop’s convalescence, he and the Commodore enjoyed conversation after dinner each evening. Very carefully, the unassuming bishop laid out his ideas and dreams of a Methodist university in the South. Nashville was the center for the church’s publishing business of which he had been a leader. Finally, McTyeire called Vanderbilt’s attention to a railroad map noting that Nashville was a hub for lines running north, south, east and west. The two became friends: The Commodore was impressed with this gracious Southerner with astute business acumen, and the bishop looked beyond the rough exterior of the 79-year-old self-made man. The evening before the bishop was to leave, the Commodore proffered the gift of a half-million dollars for the founding of a university in Nashville. Referring to McTyeire’s persuasive powers, the Commodore proclaimed that the law profession had lost a prime candidate when McTyeire made his decision to become a minister. The “Southern charm” of a young wife and of a kind bishop had softened the heart and loosened the purse strings of a hardened New York millionaire.
The gift was accepted, and a dream became reality! So the basis of our founding story hangs on this important fact: Had it not been for the relationship of two charming Southern women, the bishop and the Commodore never would have met and the dream would not have become reality—at least not as we know it today. A key question in the South has always been, “Who are your kin?” We often refer to Amelia Townsend McTyeire and Frank Armstrong Crawford Vanderbilt as our “founding mothers”—women who came to the rescue.
The bishop returned to Nashville; changed the name on the charter from Central to Vanderbilt University; bought five contiguous tracts of land equally about 75 acres; hired an architect; hired a chancellor with whom he pulled together a faculty; moved into a residence already existing on the property; oversaw construction of the buildings; and proceeded to plant hundreds of trees on the campus, which eventually would be designated a National Arboretum in 1988.
Of the five tracts of land acquired for the campus in the summer of 1873, the two largest parcels were acquired from women—women who came to the rescue. The largest plot, which fronted Hillsboro Pike from Broad Street to today’s Garland Avenue, was purchased from Mrs. Jane Litton Taylor. On June 23, 1873, Mrs. Taylor sold to Bishop McTyeire her home and acreage for the sum of $30,000. This is a photograph of the dwelling built by her father, Benjamin Litton, who was a brother of Isaac Litton [SEE PHOTO 3]. The land on which it stood had been purchased by Litton’s father-in-law, John Childress, in 1803 from its original owner, John Cockrill. This structure was used for five years by Vanderbilt as housing for its students of the Biblical Department. It was called “Wesley Hall,” the first of three halls called by that name precious to the Methodist faith.
The next largest tract, which on today’s campus includes ground occupied by the Old Gym and Carmichael Tower East, straight back to Cole Hall and Rand Terrace, and then angles southward to include the School of Engineering and part of McTyeire Hall, was sold to the bishop by Mrs. Elizabeth Boddie Elliston [SEE PHOTO 4] for the grand sum of $5 on June 24. A faithful and devoted member of the Methodist Church, Mrs. Elliston was exceptionally generous to the founding and growing of Vanderbilt. Over the next 12 years, she would sell to the university four more parcels of her large plantation for extremely reasonable prices. Both she and Mrs. Taylor were women who came to the rescue to make dreams reality.
With Nashville architect William C. Smith as the designer, the cornerstone of the Main Building was laid on April 28, 1874, just 13 months following the original gift. A stipulation of the gift was that McTyeire was to work directly with Vanderbilt with no committees or boards involved. Another stipulation was that McTyeire was to become the first president of the Board of Trust and that he was to build for himself a residence on the campus. According to the Commodore, it was to be the largest and nicest of all the residences built for faculty [SEE PHOTO 5].
How impressive this new university must have been to the population of Nashville as they rode out west of the city, to see it in plain view on an all-but-barren hill equal in elevation to the state capitol! This early image of the campus [SEE PHOTO 6] was captured from the area near the present-day intersection of 21st Avenue South and Division Street. Notice the white-washed fence surrounding the grounds to keep free-ranging cattle out! And in this earliest known photograph of the Main Building [SEE PHOTO 7], notice the switches of trees that the bishop himself had planted on this land, which only a decade before had been occupied by Union soldiers encamped there as they formed the inner line of defense for the city, which they had captured in February of 1862. The bishop’s carriage sits in front of the building as grounds workers—as they do to this day—labor to make the campus a place of beauty.
The Commodore later gave another half-million dollars for the endowment of the institution. In his only statement of purpose for his gift, Vanderbilt wrote to McTyeire a few months following the opening of the university in 1875, “… if it shall through its influence, contribute, even in the smallest degree, to strengthening the ties which should exist between all geographical sections of our common country, I shall feel that it has accomplished one of the objects that led me to take an interest in it.” These words, of course, reference the divisiveness of our country in the mid-19th century. It is ironic that the campus sits on grounds occupied by the Union Army. Cornelius Vanderbilt, who died four years following his founding gift, never saw the campus which bears his name.
Today students from all 50 states, as well as more than 100 foreign countries, attend Vanderbilt where “strengthening the ties which should exist between all geographical sections” of our common planet is still a worthy goal. On opening day, Oct. 4, 1875, 307 eager, young male scholars enrolled for classes. While ladies sat in on classes from the very beginning and one, Kate Lupton, earned a degree within the first four years, it would be the mid-1890s before women were “officially” admitted—meaning they were required to pay matriculation and tuition fees. These were ladies who dared to enter the 19th century, male-dominated sphere of higher education—ladies who, perhaps unawares, were coming to the rescue to make dreams reality for women of future generations.
The 307 male students were met by 16 male professors, including the first chancellor, Landon C. Garland. Among the new faculty appointed during the first decade of the university’s existence was a young Latin professor who had completed his doctorate at the University of Leipzig. This photograph, circa 1888, of Professor James Hampton Kirkland, seated at the far left with four fellow faculty members [SEE PHOTO 8], is the epitome of the 19th-century male world of Vanderbilt. Originally made up of four bachelor professors who called themselves the “IV Club” (“IV” being the Roman numeral for “four”), this dining club met each evening for dinner and conversation. The membership varied as new single professors were hired and as other members succumbed to Cupid’s arrows. (As you can see, this particular year the club should have been called the “V Club.”) Other men pictured here from the left, next to Kirkland, are William T. Macgruder, professor of engineering; William L. Dudley, professor of chemistry, for whom Dudley Field is named; Austin H. Merrill, instructor in elocution; and J.T. McGill, professor of organic chemistry, for whom McGill Hall is named.
Upon Chancellor Garland’s retirement in 1893, the young James H. Kirkland [SEE PHOTO 9], then 33 years old and still a member of the “IV Club,” was elected the second chancellor of Vanderbilt University. Great responsibilities, challenges and accomplishments lay ahead for this young educator with great foresight for higher education not only in the South, but nationally as well. One of the first challenges he faced as chancellor was brought to him during his first year in that office by a student whose lack of adequate finances were about to put an end to his dream of a college education. Feeling compassion for the student, Kirkland also felt frustration at the lack of a source of funds for such a need. In desperation, he took the request for a $50 loan to a generous lady of means, with whom he worshiped at the West End Methodist Church, then located at the corner of Broad and Belmont (now Broadway and 16th Avenue, where Jim Reed Chevrolet sits). The church, which had been founded as a mission in 1869 by the downtown McHenry Methodist Episcopal Church, South, had become independent of its founding church in 1871 and erected this beautiful building in 1890 [SEE PHOTO 10]. It became the meeting place for many of Vanderbilt’s faculty, students, administrators and supporters.
But the lady to whom Kirkland brought his request was also a neighbor to the university and was, in fact, the lady who had donated and sold much property to the university in which she obviously had great hopes. Mrs. Elizabeth Boddie Elliston graciously and anonymously responded to the need of this student—a woman to the rescue, making dreams reality.
Following this successful request, Kirkland, quite possibly with the suggestion and advice of Mrs. Elliston, decided to take the plea to other Nashville ladies, and word was spread through ladies church groups around the city. Encouraged by the response, the young, newly elected chancellor called a meeting of ladies in the winter of 1894. Still a bachelor, he asked another lady with whom he had social contact at West End Methodist, to host the meeting in her home. Another lady to the rescue! On Sunday afternoon, Feb. 27, Mrs. Nathaniel Baxter Jr., Laura Lavender Baxter, welcomed some of the most prominent ladies of Nashville into her home at 117 S. Spruce St. (today Eighth Avenue). Their home would have stood about where the First Lutheran Church stands today.
As the assembly was called to order, the chancellor made his appeal that the “small gifts of many might be united to one great end”—loans to worthy students of Vanderbilt University. Don’t you imagine that these prominent Nashville matrons were both impressed and charmed by this handsome intellectual who had just become the chancellor of Vanderbilt? To his call the response was positive. The ladies approved unanimously the constitution which Kirkland presented and elected none other than Mrs. Elizabeth Boddie Elliston as the first president and Mary Barbour Wallace as the first secretary-treasurer. The name would be the Ladies Aid Society for Students of Vanderbilt University, and any lady might become a member by agreeing to annual dues of $5 payable before May 1 each year, either in one sum or in quarterly payments. Eighteen ladies became charter members that very afternoon!
Following this exciting organizational meeting, Mrs. Baxter invited the ladies to the dining room for refreshments. As the gracious host apologized for such simple fare, she proceeded to serve her guests chicken salad, scalloped oysters, coffee, beaten biscuits, sandwiches, individual ices and cakes, almonds, and pink and white mints. How’s that for detailed reporting? It is interesting to note that in one version of the constitution of this organization, Article VI, titled “Meetings,” specifically states that “only the simplest refreshments may be served at the various meetings of the Society.”
A native of Mississippi, Mrs. Baxter, born Laura Lavender in 1849, married Nathaniel Baxter Jr. in Memphis in 1868. Mr. Baxter, born in Columbia, Tenn., died in Nashville in 1913. He was an attorney, president of the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Co., and a state senator. In his spare time he served on the Vanderbilt Board of Trust! Mrs. Laura Baxter’s obituary appeared on the front page of the July 26, 1935, issue of the Nashville Banner, proclaiming that she was “an interested and active member of the Vanderbilt Aid Society, organized in her home.” According to the article, her home on Spruce Street “was a center of the social, religious and cultural life of Nashville.” Besides listing the many organizations of which she was a member, the tribute continued by citing her “active interest in the social, educational and civic development of Nashville.” Furthermore, “Her generosity and charities were widespread with many warm friendships. She was especially fond of the younger people, having an unusually wide acquaintance and strong friendship among them.” I regret not having a photograph of this lovely lady, who came to the rescue of Chancellor Kirkland and the call for aid by opening her home to make dreams reality.
So 113 years ago this society, first known as the Ladies Aid Society for Students of Vanderbilt University—shortened to Vanderbilt Aid Society in 1900—became an active, vital part of the institution. With the noble purpose “to raise funds to be loaned to worthy and needy young men in the Academic Department of Vanderbilt University,” the original constitution of the Aid Society goes on to say, “It is especially stipulated that the money shall be loaned in small amounts and to young men who could not complete their courses without such aid. … Founded on this broad basis, the cause appeals to all who believe in the uplifting power of education.”
The first secretary-treasurer of the Vanderbilt Aid Society was Mrs. C.B. Wallace, Mary Barbour Wallace, a Virginia native who came to Nashville with her husband in 1886 to establish the Wallace University School, which was located from 1914 to 1941 on West End Avenue across from the Cathedral of the Incarnation at the intersection of 20th Avenue. Mrs. Wallace, who died in 1953 at the age of 93, was a member of the First Presbyterian Church (then downtown) and a charter member of the Tennessee Society of Colonial Dames. As did the obituary of Mrs. Baxter, that of Mary Barbour Wallace proclaims her connection to the Vanderbilt Aid Society as “a founder and the first treasurer.” This photograph [SEE PHOTO 11], probably made in the late teens or early 1920s, portrays a woman of culture and strong character. Continuing to serve as treasurer of the Society for 10 years, Mrs. Wallace was another lady who came to the rescue.
Born in Sumner County in 1820, Elizabeth Boddie, who became a “venerable and honored figure” in Nashville, took on the task of presidency of the Vanderbilt Aid Society at the age of 74! She continued at that post until 1899, at which time she was named honorary president.
With this stalwart woman at the Society’s helm, the first collections were made for the academic year beginning in the fall of 1894 and ending May 1, 1895. The first report of the Society in May of 1895 shows collections of $350 representing 70 members, with nine loans made to students that first year amounting to $315. In the seventh year of the Society’s history, repayments on loans began. In that year ending May 1, 1901, the sum of $293.82 was collected from old loans. It is interesting to note that from 1908 to 1932, payments from old loans exceeded the amount of collections from the membership.
Elizabeth Boddie married William R. Elliston, son of Joseph T. Elliston, who had come to Nashville in1797 as a silversmith and later became the city’s fourth mayor. It was Elizabeth’s father-in-law who in 1821 bought from John Cockrill, the original owner of the land, a large tract stretching from Charlotte Pike across Harding Pike and beyond what eventually became West End Avenue. On this land Joseph Elliston built in 1850 a home which he called “Burlington” [SEE PHOTO 12].
Joseph Elliston, who was a member of the committee that selected William Strickland of Philadelphia as architect for the Tennessee state capitol, engaged the architect to draw plans for the expansion and renovation of “Burlington.” Mr. Elliston died in 1856 before the work began. However, the ‘new’ “Burlington” was completed in 1859 by his son, William R. Elliston and his wife, Elizabeth Boddie. (The house stood where Father Ryan High School would later stand.) As we have noted, the plantation itself stretched into what would later become part of the Vanderbilt campus. The home was occupied by Federal soldiers during the Civil War, and all the fences and trees on the property were taken down for use by the Union. When the house was razed in 1930, a descendent, Mrs. Bruce Shepherd, salvaged the front gate, gazebo, silver-plated balcony rails, and doors mounted with silver fittings to incorporate into her new home, which she also named “Burlington,” on Abbott Martin Road.
Mrs. Elizabeth Elliston moved from her memory-filled “Burlington” for several years following the death of her husband and a granddaughter, who were buried together in 1870. However, she returned to her beloved “Burlington” in the 1880s to spend the rest of her life there. Here we see a photograph of her in her room, probably around the turn of the century near the end of her life [SEE PHOTO 13].
Elizabeth Elliston was praised in a February 1904 newspaper article reporting the 10th anniversary of this Society: “Recognizing the practical value and the far reaching benefits of such a work, she never ceased to urge the Society’s importance upon the younger women upon whose shoulders she believed the responsibility of the city’s advance in benevolent movements rest.”
Elizabeth Boddie Elliston died Feb. 16, 1904, at the age of 84, just a few days before the celebration of the Society’s 10th anniversary. This lady of “beautiful character,” as the Nashville Banner headlines stated, had been a valued friend and neighbor of Vanderbilt University since its founding. She was also a devoted member of the West End Methodist Church.
Making note of her being the first president of the Vanderbilt Aid Society, Mrs. Elliston’s obituary continues: “She exemplified in her character the finest traits of the Southern gentlewoman of the old school, and in addition, she was one of the most informed and most cultivated women in Nashville. She preserved to the end of her life unusual mentality and excellent literary discernment and had always taken an active interest in the intellectual advancement of women.”
She was a longtime president of the House of Industry for Girls and took an active interest in many local philanthropies. The House of Industry for Girls had been founded in 1837 by her father-in-law for “young and unprotected girls.” After donating the land and constructing a building, Joseph Elliston then did the “right thing” by turning “the whole operation over to a number of prominent ladies of the city.” One of those prominent ladies was Mrs. James K. Polk. And who else but Elizabeth Elliston should be named secretary of its board of managers at the tender age of 17! So from at least the age of 17 until her death at 84, Elizabeth Boddie Elliston was a lady who came to the rescue and made dreams reality.
The dreams made reality by the Society she helped found have been many. Chancellor Kirkland in 1937, the year of his retirement, noted in remarks to the Society: “It so happens that I have a memorandum of the first 150 loans made by the Society. … Glancing through these 150 names, I was easily able to select a group of 26 names that were still very familiar to me. Of these 26, 11 are teachers, one is a preacher, six are lawyers, and eight are business men. Three are members of the present faculty at Vanderbilt, and three are members of the Board of Trust.”
He concluded his remarks by assuring the ladies: “I feel that the work of the Vanderbilt Aid Society has been most notable. … I am confident that the interest collected on the loans made will fully compensate for our losses. I feel, therefore, sure that no dollar contributed to the Society by its members will ever be lost, but that it will continue its circuit of blessings, passing from one hand to another through the long years of university history yet to come.”
Forty-six years ago, the 1961 March/April edition of the Vanderbilt Alumnus quoted Vice Chancellor Emeritus and Dean of Alumni Madison Sarratt, regarding students who had been the beneficiaries of the Society: “Among them are some of our most distinguished alumni, men in some cases who could not have made it through college without the help of the Vanderbilt Aid. Collections from the loans have been good, better, I would say, than in business. … Even now, when there are so many other loans from the government and from the university, you will find that the funds from the Vanderbilt Aid are used up each year. The Aid has helped thousands and is as indispensable today as it ever was.”
Addressing the Society (with a membership of between 300 and 400) on Oct. 1, 1932, Chancellor Kirkland stressed the increasing importance of the Society, obviously alluding to the economic crisis of the times. It is interesting to note that Kirkland uses the first person plural pronoun in this speech, indicating his personal interest and pride in the Society he had initiated:
“The present is a time of difficulty for all, but it is just in such a time that the work of our Society is most needed. Two hundred students are asking for help now. To meet the call we must resolve that there be no resignations from the Society …
“Furthermore, we must increase our efforts to secure new members. Will you not bring at least one new member to the next meeting of this Society? Unless we continue our work, some student will be shut out, some life will be deprived of its highest aim, some opportunity lost that may never come again. Years once past never return. If your son or daughter were asking for aid, what would be your answer to this appeal? What is your answer now to others that are calling?”
As further evidence of this continued interest in the Society, I have with me Chancellor Kirkland’s personal records of the first 26 years of the Society’s finances, written on the back of an invitation to the opening ceremonies of the “Alaska—Yukon—Pacific Exposition” in 1909!
Kirkland’s use of the pronouns “our” and “we” leads me to insert here that the year following the founding of the Aid Society, James Hampton Kirkland forfeited his membership in the “IV Club” when this lovely young woman, Mary Henderson of Knoxville, came to his rescue [SEE PHOTO 14]. Together they lived in the campus residence, the largest and finest, previously occupied by the McTyeires. Here Mary Henderson Kirkland made dreams reality through her many charitable works, including the Vanderbilt Aid Society. But that’s a story for another time.
Let me also add here that the photographs used in today’s presentation came from the following sources: the State of Tennessee Library and Archives; Metro Nashville Archives; and the Vanderbilt University Special Collections and University Archives.
In a letter dated October 1941 soliciting membership in the Society, Chancellor Oliver Carmichael wrote: “Each dollar paid into the Society is used over and over again in the course of years and, therefore, bears fruit many fold. One wishing to contribute to a worthy cause could surely find no more attractive opportunity than that offered by such a loan fund as the Vanderbilt Aid.”
To that may I add, “Where else on earth can so small an investment yield such high dividends?” It has been both an honor and a pleasure for me to come before this organization as a “non-speaker.” It is a humbling experience to follow such eloquent speakers as former chancellors and vice chancellors. May I simply remind you: Yours is a beautiful heritage of gracious generosity for a noble cause. To paraphrase a very wise king of old, “Many Vanderbilt sons and daughters will rise up and call you blessed.” Thank God for ladies who come to the rescue! May you continue to make dreams reality for generations to come.
© 2015 Vanderbilt University | Photography: Photographs provided by the State of Tennessee Library and Archives; Metro Nashville Archives; and Vanderbilt University Special Collections and University Archives.
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