Alumni create socially conscious fellowship program

Graduate students tackle tough urban problems

Acting on a strong commitment to social justice forged while students here in the late 1960s, Washington University graduates are giving back to their campus community by establishing a fellowship program for graduate students willing to tackle St. Louis’ toughest urban social problems.

Husband and wife alumni Louise Veninga and Ben Zaricor, together with alumnus George Zimmer and his wife, Lorri, have made a combined gift of $750,000 to create “Birds of Passage: The Zimmer and Veninga-Zaricor Fellows.” The fellowship will reside in American Culture Studies in Arts & Sciences.

Part of a larger effort to expand American culture and urban studies at WUSTL, the “Birds of Passage” program will strengthen University ties with the St. Louis region while providing field experience for socially conscious graduate students.

In announcing the gift, Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton said: “This is a gift given truly from the heart. Louise, Ben, George and Lorri share a vision that is fueled by passion and genuine commitment to Washington University and to St. Louis. How fortunate we are to be the recipients of such remarkable and creative generosity, for which we are truly grateful.”

The fellows program begins at a time when WUSTL and particularly Arts & Sciences are reinvigorating their academic commitment to applied social sciences and urban studies.

“The gift fits in perfectly with Arts & Sciences’ current focus to strengthen and expand the American culture and urban studies programs,” explained Ralph S. Quatrano, Ph.D., interim dean of Arts & Sciences and the Spencer T. Olin Professor in Arts & Sciences. “This renewed emphasis, coupled with the University’s ongoing plan to increase multidisciplinary efforts within Arts & Sciences and across the schools, creates an amazing learning opportunity for graduate students.”

“The Birds of Passage Fellowship adds a strong component to the undergraduate and graduate programs of American Culture Studies, which emphasizes engaged study, often through community involvement,” added Randall L. Calvert, Ph.D., director of the program and the Thomas F. Eagleton University Professor in Arts & Sciences.

Calvert is pleased that the first awardee is Suzanne Pritzker, a Ph.D. candidate in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work.

“Suzanne is an ideal inaugural Fellow,” Calvert continued. “The award both complements and contributes to her research on civic development among youth, focusing on locally based service learning opportunities. We are pleased that it will effectively promote her professional development as a researcher and teacher while offering such a valuable learning opportunity to our undergraduate students.”

Not to be overlooked is the tremendous gift the Zimmers, Veninga and Zaricor are giving to St. Louis, their “home away from home” while matriculating at WUSTL. Wayne Fields, Ph.D., the Lynne Cooper Harvey Distinguished Chair in English and the former director of American Culture Studies, who has known some of the donors for more than three decades, explained their motivation to support this program:

“They came of age during the civil unrest of the Sixties, and they feel a responsibility to contribute solutions to pressing social challenges. At the same time, they recognize the unique ability of a great university to address these issues, not the least of which is a steady influx of socially conscious young men and women, now and in the future, who have a passionate wish to put their ideas to the test for the good of society.”

The three alumni have also left their mark in the business world. George Zimmer is the founder and chief executive officer of Men’s Wearhouse, the largest retailer of men’s tailored suits and dress casual clothing in the U.S. and Canada. He opened the first store in 1973, three years after graduating from WUSTL with a bachelor’s degree in economics in Arts & Sciences. He now presides over 1,200 stores producing $2.1 billion in sales annually.

His personal commitment to social responsibility is reflected in his corporate philosophy supporting charitable contributions and encouraging volunteerism. In 1992 he established the Zimmer Foundation to provide scholarships for employees and their families. He is understandably proud that his firm has made “FORTUNE Magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work for” for the past several years.

A generous alumnus to Arts & Sciences, Zimmer has provided scholarships for more than a decade.

Ben Zaricor, AB 70 (sociology) and Louise Veninga, MA 72 (urban studies) developed a business in the herb, spice and tea trade with their pioneer work in developing early trade with China after President Nixon’s initiative to open relations with China in 1971. They created a company after moving to Santa Cruz, Ca. named Fmali, that sourced, processed and supplied their products to major food and beverage companies in the U.S. and Europe for more than three decades. They also, as well, are authors and publishers of two books on herbs from China and America; The Ginseng Book, and Goldenseal Etc.

Veninga and Zaricor also co-founded the various trade associations for herbs and supplements and developed many of what today are industry standards for the use of botanicals in the U.S. Veninga and Zaricor also developed its national tea brand, Good Earth Teas which they sold to Tetley Tea Group/Tata Tea Group in 2005. They retain the rights to the Good Earth Restaurants, a pioneer in the fresh natural foods restaurant category for 40 years.

Veninga and Zaricor have been recognized for their unique collection of historical flags, especially their American collection which has been recognized as a national treasure by historians as it contains some of the most historic surviving American flags. A book and PBS documentary have been produced about their collection under the title “The American Flag: Two Centuries of Concord & Conflict.” The PBS film and book feature professors Wayne Fields and Henry Berger, plus alumnus and Hollywood filmmaker, Harold Ramis and documentarian, Phillip Koch.

Fields chairs a committee of faculty and community leaders that select future “Birds of Passage” fellows. For information on the fellowship program and submissions, contact American Culture Studies at 314-935-5216.