Trustee John Meditz ’70 is one of the University’s greatest benefactors, and a recent gift of $10 million has given wings to a major project.

Trustee John Meditz ’70 is one of the University’s greatest benefactors, and a recent gift of $10 million has given wings to a major project.

In March, Fairfield University received one of the largest gifts in its history. Trustee John Meditz ’70 announced in a letter to his fellow trustees that he would make a gift of $10 million to support one of the University’s key priorities — the expansion and modernization of the Leslie C. Quick Jr. Recreation Complex.

It wasn’t the first time that Meditz — a lifetime resident of Weehawken, N.J., just across the Hudson River from Manhattan — has made a game-changing gift to Fairfield. In 2008, his donation of $2.5 million was the foundation on which the Bellarmine Museum of Art was built. A further $2.5 million gift endowed a chair in fine arts for the director of the Bellarmine Museum.

But this new gift comes in the midst of a dynamic period of evolution at the University, as it undergoes a top-to-bottom refresh of its strategic plan, Fairfield 2020: Building a More Sustainable Future. The future of higher education will be one of stiffer competition for the best students, and one in which universities like Fairfield will need more focused academic programs, better facilities, and deeper financial resources to provide tuition assistance if they are to thrive.

The “RecPlex,” as it is commonly called, is one of the facilities most in need of enhancement at this time. Almost 95 percent of students and faculty use the exercise, recreation, and swimming facility on a regular basis. For prospective students, a state-of-the-art recreation environment is a basic expectation.

And so Meditz stepped forward to get the fundraising underway — to give that project some lift, and — as he noted in his letter to the trustees in March — in the sincere hope that “it will encourage others to make exemplary donations by increasing current gifts or making new ones.”

“Look,” he said in this interview with Fairfield University Magazine, “it’s not that I’m some kind of jock in particular, or anything,” he laughed. “The RecPlex has been identified by the University as a priority, and I support those priorities.”

“I hope that the gift serves as an incentive to others. That they say to themselves, ‘This is a time that I do something to assist the University financially.’ All one has to do,” he went on, “is ask yourself: ‘To what extent did the education I received at Fairfield contribute to my success in life?’ I think the answer comes when one searches one’s soul: ‘Am I a better person than I would have been thanks to what I got from Fairfield?’ If the answer is yes, then I think you have an obligation to support the University in every way possible, including financially.”

University President Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J. called Meditz’s gift, “historic and transformative.”

“John has been a longtime, steadfast supporter of the University, and his generosity has had a profound impact on the University community,” Fr. von Arx said. “He has a deep understanding of our mission as a Jesuit university, and he has served that mission well.”

What is striking in conversation with Meditz is that serving his community and supporting what he believes in are second nature to him. That is as true in the town of Weehawken as it is at Fairfield.

He loves his town. “The view is spectacular,” he began. “I see more of Manhattan from where I live than anyone in New York, and I have birds, and trees, and wild animals. It’s wonderful.”

His father was an accountant, and both he and his mother worked for the international law firm Shearman & Sterling, where his mother in particular got involved in securities. “So I was raised in a world of stocks and bonds, and I have followed my mother’s example.”

Jesuit education would be the other major influence in his life.  After parochial school he went to the prestigious Xavier High School on West 16th Street in Manhattan.

“It was very rigorous and, in my time, fully military and true to Jesuit education. We had a very engaging faculty. It was a great experience,” he continued. He is now chair of Xavier’s Board of Trustees on whose board he has served, on and off, for two decades.

“In those days, there was no question of where you would go to college if you were Jesuit-educated — you were going to a Jesuit school, so the question was where.” Fordham was too urban, and after having been in the city he didn’t want that anymore. Georgetown, he said, seemed to be too impersonal. “Fairfield’s setting, then as now, was spectacular, and it emphasized education and a small class size, so it had everything that I wanted.”

In speaking of his time at Fairfield, where he majored in economics, Meditz shared his admiration for some of the now legendary professors of that era, like Carmen Donnarumma, professor of politics. “I had friends at Georgetown who would be taking Introduction to Western Thought or something like that with 300 kids in the class. Their teachers didn’t know them,” Meditz said. “Then you have Carmen Donnarumma. He would know everyone by their first name by the second class! He was interested in you.”

Dr. Joan Walters, professor of economics, he said, “was a spectacularly good economics professor. Again, what was so important was the intensity of her interest in each pupil. Fairfield, then as now, values that.”

Then there was Dr. Ed O’Neill, professor of mathematics: “He came up to me years later at some luncheon and said: ‘I had you in my calculus class,’” Meditz recalled. “I mean, that is phenomenal. Not that I remembered him, but that he remembered me!

“I suppose experiences like that are an inducement for me to be supportive. And it was not just those teachers who imparted knowledge and inspiration. It was almost the entire faculty who did. Those teachers gave me a lot.”

Following Fairfield, Meditz earned an MBA in finance from Rutgers University, and after a brief stint teaching at William Patterson College, he moved to Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company, and then Bankers Trust Company, where he eventually became vice president and senior investment officer in the Private Clients Group. In 1994 he co-founded Horizon Asset Management, now Horizon Kinetics, where he remains as a managing director and senior portfolio management.

In addition to being a major philanthropist, Meditz serves his community in a dizzying variety of roles and functions. For over 30 years, he has served as chairman of the Weehawken Planning Board. “I think that’s the longest term in the history of the state,” he said, and so has had a major hand in transforming the waterfront. He has been treasurer of the Weehawken Library for 15 years, and is one of the pillars of the Palisades Medical Center — a hospital on the New Jersey side of the Hudson that assisted those hurt when U.S. Airways Flight 1549 ditched in the river. Meditz recently completed his term there as board chair.

In 1999, he helped establish the Palisades Medical Center Foundation, the hospital’s fundraising arm, where he continues as foundation chair. In 2008, the New Jersey Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals named him “Outstanding Philanthropist of the Year.” He will soon join the Board of Trustees of John Cabot University in Rome.

“John is really amazing in the amount of time and energy he dedicates to serving his community, to supporting schools and hospitals, and supporting Fairfield,” observed Wally Halas, Fairfield University’s vice president for University Advancement. “He has a genuine passion for helping others. It gives him joy, and he’s incredibly humble and low key about it. So we are really lucky to have him, and grateful for what he has helped us to accomplish.”

Of his support of Fairfield, Meditz said: “Anybody will tell you — whether it is the President of the United States or anyone in politics: ‘What is the greatest deficiency in our society today?’ It is the real lack of quality education. I’m a strong believer that when we talk about economic advancement and social advancement for our citizens, that it all comes back to education. And so I support quality education, and I believe that Fairfield is about quality education.

“There are good schools and there are ‘best’ schools,” he continued, “and I believe Fairfield is among the ‘best,’ because of the emphasis on generating in its students critical thinking, and in its maintenance of a very strong core curriculum. I believe that Jesuit pedagogy with its emphasis on ethics is more likely to instill a greater sense of morality in kids. Arguably, there is something that one gains from a Jesuit education that carries over into one’s life.

“Not everyone is going to transform the world — fine. But everyone should do everything they can to make the world a bit better by the time they pass on, whether that means being a good parent, a good coach, being a mentor at work, or getting involved in supporting charitable institutions. We all have to do what we can — it’s what makes life and work happy. That is what it means to have a sense of purpose.”