The alumni who celebrated their 50th class reunion at Carleton College in Northfield last month danced to Elvis hits, ate seared salmon and bison ribs, and announced a jaw-dropping donation to their alma mater.

It was spelled out in placards in front of the dining room one morning: $ 30 MILLION !

"You could hear a gasp," said Bob Nelson, chairman of the Class of 1962's fundraising committee. "And then there was an enthusiastic round of applause."

The gift, made by just 223 people, set a reunion record for Minnesota colleges. And it points to the growing marriages between college class reunions, a ritual of summer, and mega-philanthropy.

Across the nation, colleges and universities are tapping the goodwill of reunions to rally volunteers to raise cash. Alumni are heeding the call, writing out checks for far more than the cost of chicken dinners and golf games.

So far this summer, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has topped the charts with a $200 million gift from their Class of 1962. The Class of 1977 rustled up $68.7 million for Harvard in May.

Back on planet Earth, Minnesota's college grads made smaller but impressive offerings. Relatively small 50th reunion classes collected $5.8 million last month for St. Olaf College, for example, and $1.1 million for Macalester College.

"Warm and fuzzy feelings come about when classmates get together," said Thomas Bonner, vice president for advancement at Macalester.

The milestone reunions of 25 and 50 years have generated the biggest gifts. The 50th, in particular, has changed dramatically over the years, said Bonner. While "it used to be a lot of people in walkers and wheelchairs," reunion folks in their 70s today are increasingly vibrant and energized to organize a fundraiser that makes a difference, he said.

And they're in a position to give.

"By your 50th reunion, the mortgage is paid off, the kids are out of college, it's not the same [economic] pressure," said Bonner. "And they feel an obligation to help the next generation."

"You're in a much better place to look at your future estate at your 50th," added Nelson, a retired executive with General Electric. "When you're 72, you've got a lot more options than when you're younger."

How they did it

Raising millions of dollars doesn't happen over a glass of wine at the reunion meet-and-greet. Nelson's class decided five years ago that it was going to beat the previous reunion record of $29.1 million. Carleton is considered a national model for working with alumni during class reunions, so the alumni and college staff kicked into gear.

Gail Kleven of Bloomington was among those recruited to the reunion's fundraising committee. The retired high school English teacher was not thrilled about phoning classmates and asking for money. But like other alumni, she felt a strong appreciation for her alma mater, and has remained friends with many classmates throughout the decades.

"At first I thought, 'There's no way we're going to reach that goal,'" said Kleven. "I didn't realize how easy it could be. First of all, people knew who I was when I called. We had all lived on campus together; the only time we could go home was Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter."

The tight bonds that the roughly 300 classmates knit during their countless hours together opened the doors to often-long conversations. Much to Kleven's surprise, she spent a lot more time chatting and reminiscing than twisting arms for donation.

"The money just rolled in," she said.

Her classmates had several options: one-time cash donations, donations spread over time, stock donations, and donations made upon their death. After outlining the options, Kleven would refer them to a Carleton staffer to work through the details.

By last month, 223 people -- out of an alumni pool of about 300 -- had signed on, said Mari Aylin, director of Carleton's 50th-reunion programs. The donations ranged from $25 to $6 million. About a third was cash. The rest was mainly estate plans.

Carleton long has enjoyed a culture of tapping reunions for philanthropy, said Don Hasseltine, vice president for advancement. It regularly gets calls from other small private colleges to learn its tricks of the trade.

'A wow moment'

St. John's University in Collegeville, for example, sent two staff people to the Class of 1962 reunion last month, said Rob Culligan, vice president for institutional advancement. St. John's already taps reunions during homecoming weekend each fall, he said, typically raising $5 to $10 million. He hopes to see that grow.

Meanwhile, alumni from just two class reunions at St. Olaf, across the Cannon River from Carleton, now account for about a fourth of the college's fundraising campaign, said Rebecca Otten, of the senior development office at the college. The two reunions, the 25th and the 50th, this summer raised $7 million, she said.

"There's always kind of a wow! moment," said Otten. "With philanthropy, most people think of churches. But higher ed is the second-largest category."

The reunion formula works best with smaller colleges, where alumni know one another and make an effort to attend their class reunions. At larger institutions, such as the University of Minnesota, reunions tend to be held by individual departments or majors, such as the Medical School. Reunion philanthropy is not tracked nor necessarily promoted at the U.

Nelson and his classmates are now taking a break from their fundraising blitz. Although they've broken nearly every record for class donations over the years, they're not planning to shoot for $31 million -- or more.

"I think we'll leave it up to each classmate to see what they can do from here," said Nelson. "And hopefully another class will beat our record and help the college even more."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511