One summer day in 1951, Lester Brown got in his red ’36 Dodge pickup to drive to Rutgers. Brown, 17, farmed tomatoes with his 14-year-old brother—the young farmers grew the much-loved Rutgers tomato (28,000 plants on seven acres)—and was looking forward to his freshman year. There was one hitch: the cannery wouldn’t pay until late in the fall, and tuition was due at registration. At Rutgers, where he met with a dean, Brown got some welcome news: He had a full-tuition scholarship. As Brown recounts in his latest book, Breaking New Ground: A Personal History, “For a farm boy with meager resources, this was like manna from heaven, a gift from the gods.”
“I didn’t really have any money to speak of,” Brown says. “Even with the scholarship, I had a job working in the ag library two nights a week.” The scholarship was invaluable: “It helped to financially anchor the Rutgers experience.”
Now Brown, a pioneering environmentalist lauded by the Washington Post as “one of the world’s most influential thinkers,” is giving back to the university with a $1 million bequest to establish and endow the Lester R. Brown Reading Room. He is also giving the university his collection of books he has authored and a digital collection of interviews, presentations, and documentaries. Taken together, these landmark works, from Man, Land and Food to Who Will Feed China? and Plan B: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, constitute something of “an environmental history of the earth,” as Brown puts it. The body of work is unparalleled in its breadth and scope, as year after year, Brown has engaged in a systematic analysis of environmental issues, from food security to climate change.
Though Brown attended three universities, including Harvard, he was at Rutgers longer than any other. The Rutgers experience, he writes, “helped change my thinking, and indeed my life.” Before he came to Rutgers, he really hadn’t left South Jersey. “I feel a certain obligation to Rutgers,” Brown says. “Rutgers was a major stepping point for me—a major advance. It was a chance to learn and to spread out.”