With great personal loss seemingly everywhere, and so many taken far too soon, it might sound futile to promise a better tomorrow. But let me share this: I know something of that pain, and that promise. Forty years ago, my Rutgers friends and I faced a sudden, terrible absence among us.
Jasper Stewart, or “Jay” as he was known to his many friends, was one of a kind. Everyone who knew him loved him. For our friendship circle, it is impossible to separate the Rutgers experience from the experience of knowing Jay.
He grew up in a Jersey City, New Jersey, housing project, a middle child among 11 siblings, with all the experiences one would expect from coming of age in a tough neighborhood. But that was not the only narrative shaping his life. For one thing, he excelled in school. Thanks to the Upward Bound Program, which serves promising students from low-income households, he spent the last two years of high school in Lebanon, New Hampshire, and he had hilarious and sometimes poignant fish-out-of-water stories from his time there.
Jay’s optimism and philosophical perspective knew no limit. If you complained about your dorm room, he would say, “Shoot! This is the nicest bedroom I ever had.” If you dumped uneaten food at the Commons, he would remind you that others were going hungry. If you carped about your parents being on your back, he would say “Shoot! I wish I had someone calling me from home asking how I was doing.”
As first-year students, Jay and Dix lived in neighboring dorm rooms on Campbell Hall’s fourth floor and I frequently visited Dix there, having become friendly with him in the Educational Opportunity Fund Summer Program. With few African Americans attending Rutgers College during the 1970s, it was natural for Jay, Dix, and me to form a bond. Moreover, we were latchkey kids from similar neighborhoods and the first in our large families to attend college. Besides that, we each had distinguished high school football careers but were too undersized for Division I. Not ready to give up on football, we went out together for the Intercollegiate lightweight team, breaking into the starting lineup as freshmen. In the spring, we pledged Phi Gamma Delta along with Campbell neighbor Larry Landau RC’80.
In time, our circle grew to include new Campbell floormates Ethan Grodofsky RC’81 and Miriam Diaz RC’81, as well as Chris Jansen RC’81. We all socialized together and particularly at the FIJI House’s legendary disco parties. However, as Dix noted in a Targum tribute, few people spent more time studying than Jay. He was pre-med, a double major, and practically lived in the library.
One evening a few weeks before commencement, Dix and I were crossing the Quad when a passerby said, “Sorry about your boy Jay.” We didn’t know what he meant. He explained, saying, “I’m sorry, I thought you guys already knew. Jay died today after a pickup game in the Barn.” The news literally knocked Dix off his feet.
Jay had suffered a blow to the head while playing basketball. After complaining of dizziness and falling unconscious, he was rushed to a hospital, where he passed away.
Jay’s destiny had been wide open. He could have been a doctor, a corporate executive, a civic leader, anything. It is beautiful and tragic all at once to think of everything he could have been. Graduating without him felt strange and wrong. What transpired next among his friends was an attempt to right that “wrong.”
Like a seed, it started as a shared promise, agreed upon at informal reunions. We vowed to create a scholarship in Jay’s memory—a mechanism for giving students like him an opportunity to attend Rutgers.
While Ethan, Chris, and I worked out the structure and details of the scholarship, Dix went to work getting others on board. He tracked down everyone from our circle who, like the core group, were devastated by Jay’s loss, assembling a committed band of donors. I’m proud to say that today, the seed we planted after graduation has become a magnificent tree.
Through contributions solely from within our circle, the “Jay” Memorial Scholarship is now fully endowed, going to one promising recipient each year. To ensure that continues, members of the Rutgers community must recognize how important it is to empower students like Jay—students from acutely disadvantaged backgrounds with the same spark of promise he showed. When those students join the Rutgers family, everyone benefits and Jay’s legacy lives on.
Gary Way graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English and earned a law degree from New York University in 1983. He is general counsel at Nike’s Jordan brand.
To support the Jasper “Jay” Lee Stewart Memorial Endowed Scholarship, please visit give.rutgers.edu/forjay.