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When Steven Temares’s father died at age 57, Temares quickly confirmed his life priorities: 1. Family. 2. Everything else. “Nothing else is even on the charts,” says Temares. It was therefore only fitting that when he and his wife, Amy, learned of a unique opportunity to support Rutgers in a significant way, they involved their loved ones in the decision-making process.

Temares was an economics major and philosophy minor at Rutgers, and is a 1983 graduate of Penn Law. He joined retail giant Bed Bath & Beyond in 1992, was named president of the company in 1999, and became CEO in 2003.

In February 2012, the Temareses funded the Murray and Charlotte Strongwater Endowed Chair in Neuroscience and Brain Health, in honor of Amy’s parents—a successful couple with diverse interests who are loving grandparents to the Temareses’s daughters, Jacklyn, 20, Dani, 17, and Maddie, 14, as well as seven other granddaughters. “One of the joys of being able to make this gift was the opportunity to honor these special, devoted people who have blessed us,” says Temares, who is also very close with his mother and recently made a significant gift to her as well. “My in-laws are just incredible role models, and their intellectual curiosity, about what we can do together, made Rutgers the perfect venue for the gift.”

The admiration is mutual, say the honorees, who were wholly involved in the chair selection. “Everything was presented in such a wonderful manner,” says Murray Strongwater. “Steven wanted us to be closely informed, but in no way domineered the decision. To honor us in this way is as magnanimous as anything Charlotte and I could possibly experience.”

Endowed chairs have become the single highest priority for philanthropic giving at Rutgers. As Rutgers measures itself among peer institutions—UCLA or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), for example—the number of endowed chairs is comparatively lacking. At the time the 18-Chair Challenge was established, UCLA and UNC had 343 and 473 endowed chairs, respectively; Rutgers had only 41. Since many academics consider endowed chairs to be a measure of a school’s prestige, “As soon as I heard about the challenge,” says Temares, “I knew it was something I was going to do.”

It was also something Temares wanted to do quickly. “You can only know so much about any one subject,” he says. “You can spend weeks or months on the decision, and I wanted to get it done. There was no sense in waiting.”

Deciding which field to support, however, was not an easy choice. “When Charlotte and I learned about the extent of research going on at Rutgers—in so many fields—we were floored,” says Murray. “It was truly eye-opening.”

The Temareses and Strongwaters together spent time reviewing and discussing which areas they might like to support. Once they narrowed down their individual and collective choices, they came to the Rutgers–New Brunswick campus and spent a day listening to presentations from different schools. “All of the presentations were strong,” says Temares. “In the end, it was very close.”

Ultimately, the family was drawn to neuroscience because of the field’s potential to make lives better. “Of all the fields we considered,” says Temares, “neuroscience impressed us with its potential for human impact. Unfortunately, the subject of human suffering is relatable to everyone.”

The Strongwater Chair is designed to recruit and retain an eminent scholar in the field of cell biology and neuroscience to serve on the Rutgers faculty. The holder of the chair will serve as the director of the School of Arts and Sciences’ Brain Health Institute, the mission of which is to discover new ways to treat, cure, and prevent neurological disorders such as autism and Alzheimer’s. “It’s a huge opportunity to make a difference,” says Temares, adding that he has no preset expectations for what benefits his family’s gift may yield. “With a gift like this [meant to further research], you may never know the relationship of what you give and what benefit comes of it. Sometimes, it’s the process of discovery itself that’s most important.”

As for the honorees’ thoughts: “Steven is what every parent wants in a son-in-law,” says Murray. “His strongest feeling is for his family. He also believes that education and research, in any field, are so very important. For him to show his love and honor us as in-laws, it’s unbelievable. Charlotte and I can’t express how deeply we feel—we can’t put it into words. Actually, there are no more words to say except ‘our cup runneth over.’”

The Rutgers 18-Chair Challenge
The Strongwater Chair is part of Rutgers’ “18-Chair Challenge,” which was funded by an anonymous $27 million challenge grant in June 2011. For every $1.5 million raised for an endowed chair that meets the donor’s criteria, the donor will match the gift with an additional $1.5 million. A total endowment of $3 million is necessary to create an academic chair, and the interest from that endowment provides for the chair holder’s annual salary and research allowance in perpetuity. The $1.5 million matching gifts will continue until a total of 18 new chairs are established.

Originally published in Rutgers alumni magazine. Photography by Matt Rainey.

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