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Alumnus Turns Comic Book Art Into Scholarships for Rutgers Students

George Tsacnaris turned a collector's item he bought as a Rutgers student into a generous donation to help students decades later.
George Tsacnaris with examples of prized collectibles: Michael Jordan’s rookie card and a mint condition key Batman book, both from 1986.
John O'Boyle/Rutgers University

George Tsacnaris began collecting as a Rutgers student 

Forty years ago, on a whim, as a Rutgers sophomore George Tsacnaris spent $40 on one of his first pieces of comic book art – a signed Marvel X-Men comic book featuring the series’ iconic Wolverine character.

The lifelong comic book collector, who has amassed a collection of more than 22,000 comic books and artwork, along with an array of basketball cards, didn’t give it much thought at the time.

But four decades later, the 1982 Rutgers graduate realized how right he was in making the purchase when he sold framed comic book art for $30,000 and donated the proceeds to the Rutgers Rodkin Academic Success Center and the Scarlet Promise Grants initiative, the latter in response to President Jonathan Holloway’s call to raise $10 million for the grants.

“This gift is pretty amazing,” says Rutgers University Foundation President Nevin Kessler. “I love the fact that George is willing to connect his passion for collecting with his passion for helping our students. He’s been just a great friend to Rutgers over the years, and in so many ways.”

As a Rutgers student, Tsacnaris regularly visited comic book stores in New Brunswick. When he went to a comic book convention in 1980, he decided to make the purchase because he liked the picture and the artist, Terry Austin, who partnered with John Byrne and became highly admired fan favorites for their work together.

“I had never purchased art until then,” Tsacnaris says of his 1980 buy. “And I thought, you know what? It was $40, and he signed it. I just picked the one that was most appealing to me.”

Over the next 40 years as his collection grew, Tsacnaris, who catalogued his purchases, would look at collector sites. “One Saturday night I was doing my cataloguing – I keep a spreadsheet – and saw this picture in a frame. I thought maybe it was worth 500 bucks. Then I did some research and thought maybe it was worth more,” he says.

The Marvel X-Men comic book art that appreciated so greatly in value came from Uncanny X-Men #126, featuring the series’ iconic Wolverine character.

Cockrum X-Men drawing
One-of-a-kind X-Men sketch drawn by David Cockrum for George Tsacnaris

Comic artists Byrne and Austin drew 35 issues of the X-Men comic book at the peak of the title’s popularity, producing about 900 one-of-kind art pages. Each page required the efforts of two artists; a penciler, who drew characters and scenes, and an inker, who created the layers of color that helped bring them to life. In the early days of comics, “no one gave a flip” about the art, and publishers typically disposed of it after completing a book’s production.

Artists, realizing fans would pay for the pages, began holding on to them and selling them at conventions like the one Tsacnaris attended in 1980. As the X-Men comic books and movies grew in popularity, the art grew in value.

The sale is the latest in a long list of unique achievements for Tsacnaris, who majored in computer science, and holds many records, streaks and firsts. He has the record for the most Rutgers athletic events attended in person during any academic year. He owns, and appears in the background of, Michael Jordan’s rookie basketball card. For years he went to every New Jersey Nets game—including in the Nets’ early years, when the team played at the RAC. And he was the very first philanthropic investor in the Rutgers Future Scholars program.

Hired by Bell Laboratories upon his Rutgers graduation, he has remained with the company ever since, through its many incarnations and owners, including its current iteration as iconectiv, based in Bridgewater. Among his accomplishments—a patent on the technology that enables porting telephone numbers from one service provider to another.

He has extended his professional achievements to Rutgers students as well, hiring several of them over the years. He is particularly proud of his work with Rutgers Future Scholars, the program that offers hundreds of academically promising New Jersey middle school students from New Brunswick, Piscataway, Newark, Camden, and Rahway the opportunity for a college education through mentoring and, if successful, full tuition scholarships.

“I started to take advantage of the pipeline,” he says. I got to see another side of Rutgers – got involved in different things. One of the towns that benefits is Piscataway, where I live. That’s important.”

Tsacnaris’ philanthropy is long-running and broad, totaling more than $1 million, and he has included Rutgers as the primary beneficiary of his estate plan. Frequently his giving has focused on access to higher education for talented students. He has created the George M. Tsacnaris Endowment for Rutgers Future Scholars and the George Tsacnaris Annual Field Hockey Scholarship, and he most recently threw his support behind Scarlet Promise Grants. His passion for Rutgers Athletics also led him to support a raft of additional athletics efforts, including the Gary and Barbara Rodkin Academic Success Center, in which he has named the women’s soccer program head coaches office. He credits foundation staff Drew Kaiden and Maggie Long with helping him shape his philanthropy to the impact he wants to create at Rutgers.

About his latest contribution, he simply says, “I’m glad I did it. I feel really good about it.”