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Strong Rutgers ties sustain memories of a beloved friend—and make a difference for students. A member of the Class of 1980 tells the story.

The late Jasper “Jay” Stewart, center, as he appeared in a 1980 Phi Gamma Delta photo. Having grown up in a large family in a Jersey City, New Jersey, housing project, Stewart quickly befriended Gary Way, left, and Alton Dixson.
The late Jasper “Jay” Stewart, center, as he appeared in a 1980 Phi Gamma Delta photo. Having grown up in a large family in a Jersey City, New Jersey, housing project, Stewart quickly befriended Gary Way, left, and Alton Dixson, who were also the first in their families to attend college. After Stewart’s death, Way, Dixson, and other classmates vowed to create a scholarship in memory of Stewart.
Photographs courtesy of Alton Dixson

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.

Everyone who knew Jasper “Jay” Stewart loved him. He grew up in a Jersey City, New Jersey, housing project with 11 siblings and excelled in school. When he arrived at Rutgers College, which had relatively few African-American students in the 1970s, it was natural for him to bond with Alton Dixson RC’80 and me. We were inner-city latchkey kids and first in our large families to attend college.

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 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.” He was pre-med, a double-major, and practically lived in the library. But he socialized, too. Over the years, our circle grew to include Larry Landau RC’80, Ethan Grodofsky RC’81, Chris Jansen RC ’81, Miriam Diaz RC’81, GSE’84, and many others.

A few weeks before commencement, Dix and I were crossing the quad. A passerby said, “Sorry about your boy Jay.” We didn’t know what he meant. When he explained, the news literally knocked Dix off his feet. Jay had suffered a blow to the head while playing basketball in the Barn. After complaining of dizziness and falling unconscious, he was rushed to a hospital where he passed away.

His destiny had been wide open. He could have been a doctor, an executive, a civic leader, anything. 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 collective promise 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 scholarship’s structure, Dix went to work getting others on board. He tracked down everyone from our circle, assembling a committed cohort of donors. Today, the seed we planted has become a magnificent tree. The Jasper “Jay” Lee Stewart Memorial Endowed Scholarship is now fully endowed solely by us and goes to one promising recipient each year.

It is crucial that we continue empowering students like Jay—students from acutely disadvantaged backgrounds with the same spark of promise he showed. When those students join the Rutgers family, tragedy becomes victory and Jay’s legacy lives on.

Gary Way graduated with a bachelor of arts 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.