Painting the House
Arlene Grushkin’s family carries on her love of Vanderbilt.
Last spring, when the youngest of Steven and Arlene Grushkin’s three children graduated from the College of Arts and Science, the final family trip to Vanderbilt University was bittersweet. There was the sweetness of accomplishment as Jonathan, BA’09, walked the stage like his brother Brian, BA’05, had done four years prior.
“But I remember Arlene being saddened, concerned that we wouldn’t be visiting there as often,” says Steven Grushkin, Arlene’s husband of 34 years.
It was truer than any could have imagined. Within a month of the ceremony, Arlene Grushkin was calling her children with the news that she had been diagnosed with cervical cancer. By mid-July, at age 59, she was gone.
Such was her love of the school, however—not to mention her passion for seeing children in general succeed—that the Grushkin family has continued to “paint the house” they helped build through financial contributions and scholarships. Arlene’s self-described second home will now offer the Arlene H. Grushkin Memorial–Gibor Foundation Scholarship in her honor.
“You can have a beautiful home, and when you move in, everything is fine,” says Steven, a partner at Wofsey, Rosen, Kweskin & Kuriansky, a Connecticut-based law firm. “But you don’t want it to deteriorate. You’ve got to nurture it and paint it, to keep it up so it doesn’t collapse. I believe it’s the same with a university like Vanderbilt. If you want it to continue to expand, to hold its reputation, you’ve got to work at it even after you graduate.”
Passion for Learning
It was an easy sell, then, for the Grushkin children to be on board with a gift in their mother’s honor—even for Lisa, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2001.
“My mom really took pride when we did well in school,” says Lisa Grushkin. “But she loved Vanderbilt, everything from the campus to the social aspects of it. She and my dad made a lot of friends there, and she’d talk about Vanderbilt all the time. It seemed like a great idea to me.”
The Grushkins’ involvement has gone beyond that of many. The couple served six years on the Parents Leadership Committee and another five on the Parents and Family Association Advisory Board. While their sons were still at the College of Arts and Science, a Grushkin-Smith-Gibor Foundation Scholarship for $100,000 was established. An additional scholarship was in the works when Arlene unexpectedly passed away; the decision was easily made for it to bear her name. Her children say Arlene was the kind of mother who would read current events magazines, keep up with the latest sports scores, and listen to contemporary music to connect with them in many different ways beyond normal conversations. She strived to remain involved in her children’s lives through various means, they say, and the scholarship will continue her legacy of involvement for another deserving young adult.
Back at home in New Canaan, Conn., Arlene was an active volunteer in various programs with schoolchildren, including a reading program in the nearby town where she grew up. Reading and learning were her passions, the family members say, in addition to treating all people equally without regard to position or status.
Making It Worthwhile
That’s yet another reason Arlene’s family members believe she would have been excited about the new scholarship. Because of the university’s recent move to replace all need-based undergraduate student loans with scholarships and grant assistance through the expanded financial aid program, the Grushkins can help students and the school as a whole in that area.
Mihir Gandhi, a first-year economics student from New Jersey, is a recipient of the established Grushkin-Smith-Gibor scholarship. “It would probably not be possible for me to attend Vanderbilt without the generosity of such donors,” he says. “A grant like this makes you feel like you have an obligation to do well. I’ve made the dean’s list and am trying to work hard, to make this money I’ve been given worthwhile.”
In the meantime, the Grushkin children have been making their own degrees worthwhile by all working in financial services. Brian lives in Charlotte, N.C., and Jonathan and Lisa in New York. Both brothers graduated from the College of Arts and Science with degrees in economics. Lisa’s degree was in communications; she now works for an investment bank.
Though Arlene was tremendously pleased by her gifted children, Steven says, the reserved mother was not one to boast of them to other parents.
“The children meant everything to her,” Steven says. “But when people asked her about them, she would just say, ‘Everything is fine; they’re doing great.’ We knew that we were so lucky, but she never wanted to come across as comparing our children to others. She didn’t want a ‘my-child-is-better-than-your-child’ type of thing. She respected people, and they admired her.”
Brian Grushkin believes that his mother would have been absolutely thrilled to be able to help someone else’s child go to the College of Arts and Science, “especially someone deserving,” he says. “She loved Vanderbilt, and she knew we did, too. She knew that, without Vanderbilt, we wouldn’t have gotten where we are today. So this is a chance to kind of give back.”
Likewise, younger brother Jonathan, who has been greatly touched by an outpouring of cards, sympathy and support from the school even though he’s no longer there, sees the investment as planting in good soil.
“When there’s an opportunity to give back, you want to give to something that you’re going to get a good return on,” he says. “Not for our sake, but for someone else’s. And with Vanderbilt, the money we’re putting into this scholarship, we know it will be put to good use. After Brian and I had such a good experience there, what better way to give back than to help ensure someone else could do the same?”
As 2009 drew to a close, the Grushkin family put extra effort into being together. It was a time of endings, but also one of beginning a new family dynamic. Steven has taken over the phone check-ins with the children, for example, and has been trying his hand at cooking more.
As with any family loss, the meanings of home are being redefined. But at the Grushkins’ home away from home in Nashville, the other house still stands—and it’s ready to receive that next coat of paint.