Stephen Adams, Who Made Yale Music School Tuition-Free, Dies at 86


Stephen Adams, a billionaire whose anonymous $100 million gift to the Yale School of Music granted a tuition-free education to talented students embarking on careers in a capricious profession, died on March 14 at his home in Roxbury, Conn. He was 86.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Denise (Rhea) Adams.

Mr. Adams, who graduated from Yale College in 1959, was not a musician himself. But after he turned 55 and was already a prosperous business executive and wine collector, he became an amateur piano player.

In 1999, he marked his class’s 40th-anniversary reunion by donating $10 million to the music school — the largest contribution it had ever received. Six years later, he and his wife surpassed that record when they made their $100 million gift, anonymously.

They did not publicly reveal their identity as the donors until 2008, when Mr. Adams was asked to confirm their contribution by an interviewer from Wine Spectator magazine. He agreed to do so then, he said, to spur other contributors as his 50th-anniversary class reunion approached.

“My wife and I are Christians, and the Bible speaks of giving in secret,” Mr. Adams told The Yale Daily News in 2009.

In that same article, Michael Friedmann, a professor of theory and chamber music, said, “Musicians, as opposed to doctors or lawyers, are not in a position to repay educational loans easily, and the profession has a capricious opportunity structure.” He added, “The new financial conditions at the school, however, put musicians in a very different position in relation to their post-Yale careers.”

In 2013, Yale announced that the campus music complex, which includes Leigh Hall and Hendrie Hall, would be known as the Adams Center for Musical Arts.

Among the other charitable causes Mr. Adams and his wife supported through their Adams Family Foundation were the Adams Neurosciences Center and the Stephen and Denise Adams Center for Parkinson’s Disease Research at Yale; the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where he endowed three professorships; World Vision, a global Christian humanitarian organization; and the Veritas Forum, which hosts discussions about philosophy, religion and science for Christian students on college campuses.

In an interview with Yale Alumni Magazine in 2008, Mr. Adams explained that in the mid-1990s, with the encouragement of his wife, an artist, he had begun going to New York City twice a month to take piano lessons from a classmate who after graduating from Yale College had earned a graduate degree from the music school.

“I would practice about an hour a day, and I got to the point that I wasn’t all that bad,” he said. “Then, a couple of years ago, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. The right hand got to be a little bit of an issue: It had some tremors.”

His decade or so of piano playing was mostly behind him when he decided to make the gift to the music school that would relieve future alumni of tuition, and the lingering debt of student loans, as they struggled to begin their careers.

Stephen Adams was born on Nov. 7, 1937, in Minneapolis to Cedric Adams, a columnist for The Minneapolis Star and a broadcaster for the local radio station WCCO, and Bernice (Lenont) Adams, who managed the household.

After graduating from the Blake School in Minneapolis, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale in 1959 and a master’s in business administration from Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., in 1962. In 2006, he received the Ernest C. Arbuckle Award for management leadership from the Stanford business school’s alumni association; in 2009, the Yale Alumni Association awarded him its Medal of Honor.

Because most of his assets were privately held, Mr. Adams was not well known. He became a billionaire by investing in or licensing franchises in an eclectic mix of mundane businesses, including community banks, soda bottling companies, outdoor advertising, local radio and television stations, recreational vehicles, camping supplies, and vineyards in California’s Napa Valley and in Bordeaux, France. (He preferred a glass or two of red with dinner, from his own vineyards in France.)

His brands included Affinity Group, Camping World and Adams Outdoor Advertising.

Mr. Adams’s first three marriages ended in divorce. In addition to his wife of 32 years, he is survived by four sons, Stephen, Mark, Kent and Scott, from his first marriage; his stepchildren, Weesa, Forrie and Nick Burke, from his second marriage; and nine grandchildren. His brothers, David and Cedric II, died before him.

In the Wine Spectator interview, Mr. Adams said one reason he never craved public attention and had made his donation to the Yale School of Music anonymously was that he felt deprived of a private life as a child because his father, as a local media personality, was too popular in his hometown.

“Our family couldn’t go out to a meal without being interrupted by people who wanted to shake my father’s hand or get his autograph,” he said. “His life wasn’t his own. I decided then that I’d go the other direction in my life.”



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