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Return of the Native Son

Ray Chambers
Ray Chambers  Photograph by John Emerson

Once a year, philanthropist Ray Chambers SB’64 sits down with Rutgers–Newark students whose lives he has touched. Chambers, a self-effacing Newark native who made a fortune on Wall Street and gave much of it away to spark a renaissance in his hometown, listens to their stories. The MCJ Student Residential Housing Scholarship program, founded in 2008 and funded by his MCJ Amelior Foundation, enables a dozen Newark residents to live on campus while studying at Rutgers. Its success has spawned the Centennial Housing Scholarship Program, available to low-income students from cities outside of Newark and funded by alumni donations.

“I’ve been struck by statements like ‘I can go to the library whenever I want’ and ‘I don’t have to worry about walking out of my house where there are drug dealers and gang members,’” says Chambers. “One student said, ‘It’s such an encouraging environment that it makes me feel more intelligent to live here.’”

Chambers was a commuter student during his undergraduate days at Rutgers, taking a bus to class from his family’s apartment in the West Ward. Tuition, $200 a semester, was covered by a state scholarship. Chambers majored in accounting and covered expenses by playing keyboards in a rock band called the Accidentals. After graduating from Rutgers, he worked as a junior accoun­tant and went to Seton Hall University at night to earn his M.B.A.

Chambers, a financial whiz, pioneered leveraged buyouts and accrued a fortune as the chair of Wesray Capital Corporation, a private equity holding company that he cofounded in 1981 with the late William E. Simon, treasury secretary under U.S. presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. By 1988, Forbes magazine estimated Chambers’s fortune at $200 million. He seemed to have it all—a wife and three children living in a suburb of pastoral beauty—yet happiness eluded him. Chambers began to realize that helping others with his time and money, which he had begun to do quietly in Newark, helped fill the emptiness. In 1989, Chambers jumped into philanthropy full time.

“I’ve sought out people and asked them what’s within us that provokes us to want to help and give back, and why we feel so good after we do it,” says Chambers. He cites as inspiration the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, about the happiness that results serving others, and South African archbishop Desmond Tutu, about the idea of ubuntu, which means, loosely translated, being open and available to others and avoiding a life of isolation.

Chambers’s first charitable cause was the Boys & Girls Clubs of Newark, where he had learned to swim as a child and where he donated money to upgrade the facilities. Through the clubs, he founded the Rigorous Educational Assistance for Deserving Youth (READY) program, providing mentoring, tutoring, and cultural enrichment for 1,000 young children, with a promise of a free college education.

Chambers deployed his signature brand of philanthropy and his considerable persuasive skills in other ways as well by leveraging his money and influence and then getting others to contribute. He pledged a huge sum for a new performing arts center in Newark and persuaded others to do so, leading to the creation of the $190 million New Jersey Performing Arts Center in 1997. A year later, he was the principal investor in a group that bought the New Jersey Nets, with the intention of bringing the basketball team to Newark to further promote revitalization.

Chambers went on to cofound America’s Promise Alliance with Colin Powell to provide programs for young people; the National Mentoring Partner­ship; Millennium Promise, which combats poverty; and Malaria No More. He is the United Nations secretary-general’s special envoy for malaria, a position to which he was appointed in 2008. “I get great joy from seeing even little bits of progress,” says Chambers. “I really am a happy guy.” — Mary Jo Patterson