For months, it’s been circled in red on the Rodkin family calendar: October 25, the date Rutgers football plays the University of Nebraska in an away game.
For Barbara W. Rodkin DC’76 and her husband, Gary M. Rodkin RC’74, the CEO of Omaha-based ConAgra Foods who grew up in Piscataway and attended every Rutgers football game for a decade or more, the first Big Ten® matchup between the team of their adopted state and the team of their hearts promises to be a banner occasion.
“My mom and dad are coming out; friends are coming out,” Gary Rodkin says. “There’s going to be 95,000 Cornhusker fans and 10 Rutgers fans. The good thing is we both wear red, so we’ll be able to go incognito.”
It’s not only on the playing field that the Rodkins lead the cheers for Rutgers. Through their Rodkin Family Foundation, which Barbara Rodkin runs out of the home they maintain in Connecticut, they have given more than $5 million to the university, most recently pledging $2 million to the Honors College at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, which opens in fall 2015.
The Honors College, for which the university is seeking $100 million in donations, will eventually enroll 2,000 students. The four-year program will include first-year seminars and common courses, hands-on research, study abroad and global programs, internship and service-learning opportunities, and a capstone project. In their first year, Honors Scholars, along with peer mentors and faculty-in-residence, will live together in the Honors College facility under construction on New Brunswick’s College Avenue Campus.
“The whole living-and-learning model is intended to make for a more well-rounded college experience,” says Barbara Rodkin. “It’s a small school within a bigger university.”
Back when the Rodkins were in college, Rutgers seemed a natural fit for bright, ambitious Jersey kids. But now, more than 55 percent of New Jersey high school graduates who are seeking four-year degrees choose out-of-state schools—a situation the Rodkins hope the new Honors College will help remedy.
“It just puts a real focal point on the kind of high-end educational experience that you can have within the university,” says Gary Rodkin. “I want it to raise the profile of Rutgers as an educational institution that has its fair share of the best students.”
For the Rodkins, Rutgers is family: Gary Rodkin’s father, uncles, and brothers earned degrees from the university, as did Barbara Rodkin’s sister. Gary and Barbara met in the library while he was, as he puts it, “studying—or studying girls.”
In the years since, Barbara Rodkin has taught students with emotional or learning difficulties, and Gary Rodkin has held a series of high-ranking positions in the food industry, heading PepsiCo’s North American food and beverage division before taking over packaged-foods giant ConAgra in 2005.
Like their Rutgers affiliation, giving back is also a family tradition. The Rodkins’ parents were active volunteers, and the Rodkins launched their foundation in part to set an example for their two grown children.
“It’s just a way of modeling what to do with resources that you have, in a way that impacts people’s lives,” says Barbara Rodkin.
At ConAgra, the Rodkins have established a scholarship fund for the children of hourly employees. At Rutgers, much of their giving has been shaped by the priorities of former president Richard L. McCormick and current president Robert Barchi. In addition to their Honors College pledge, the Rodkins have endowed the Rodkin-Weintraub Chair in Engineering in honor of their fathers, both engineers. They have supported Douglass Residential College’s international service-learning program through its Global Village and have established a summer science research program for undergraduate women through the Douglass Project for Rutgers Women in Math, Science, and Engineering. They have also given to the Rutgers Future Scholars program, which gives low-income middle school and high school students a path to college.
“We are just really proud of our association with the school,” Gary Rodkin says. “We cemented some really important relationships there. It helped launch the life that we have today.”
Originally published in Rutgers Alumni Magazine. Photography by Douglas Benedict. Read more stories from IMPACT.