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Education and the American Dream

Jeff and Peg Padnos outside their Holland, Michigan, home. Photo by Hannah Ziegeler

A Harvard-Radcliffe couple is inspired by family values to endow the Jeffrey S. and Margaret Mais Padnos Fellowship Fund.

Gladys and Reynold Mais were immigrants from Jamaica who saved diligently for the education of their only child, Margaret (known as Peg), sharing their values along with their diverse and multiethnic culture. Even after Reynold passed away in 1962, when Peg was 13, her mother held onto their shared goal of a college education for their only child, purchasing tuition insurance to ensure her daughter could attend college—specifically Radcliffe, which a friend’s daughter had attended.

“The happiest day of my mother's life was when that fat envelope came,” recalls Peg Mais Padnos ’70, who graduated magna cum laude from Radcliffe College with a bachelor’s degree in East Asian studies. She also met a classmate, Jeffrey (Jeff) S. Padnos ’70, whom she would later marry. Following a nursing career, during which Peg cared for sick infants and premature newborns in neonatal intensive care, she turned toward writing, earning a master’s in English and creative writing/poetry through an online course at Southern New Hampshire University in 2015.

For Peg and Jeff, honoring Gladys and Reynold’s diligence and esteem for education meant reaching out to Radcliffe. With their $1.3 million contribution, given on the occasion of their 50th Reunion and matched with $667,000 from the Radcliffee Institute to create a $2 million endowment, this Michigan couple are focusing their philanthropy on education, establishing the Jeffrey S. and Margaret Mais Padnos Fellowship Fund at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

“Peg and Jeff’s gift will support transformative experiences for our fellows, who strive to expand human understanding and improve our world,” says Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin. “A former fellow myself, I know how important Radcliffe’s interdisciplinary fellowship community can be to a scholar’s work and career. On behalf of the many fellows who will benefit from Peg and Jeff’s generosity in the years to come, I express my deepest gratitude for their commitment to the power of education.”

The fellowship recognizes the centrality of education to the American dream. “This is also a way to honor my grandparents,” says Peg, who has memorialized members of her family in her verse. “My grandmother in particular loved reading and writing, doing crosswords, and quoting Shakespeare and the Bible,” she recalls. “I think she wanted to be a teacher. She would have loved to go to college.”

Jeff’s family business, Louis Padnos Iron and Metal Company, was founded by his grandfather, a Russian immigrant who instilled in his children the belief that education was the path to a better life. All four of the Padnos’s children—Benjamin Louis, Rebecca Helen, Samuel DePasse, and Joshua Cyril—now have degrees from institutions around the country. However, when the couple considered the impact their generosity could have, they realized that Radcliffe was the obvious beneficiary.

“Radcliffe is very much in my heart,” says Peg, who also serves as her class secretary. “I loved being a ’Cliffie.”

"I loved being a 'Cliffie," says Peg Padnos. Photo by Hannah Ziegeler

Jeff also notes how the gift to Radcliffe, with its interdisciplinary mission, will have an impact across fields and support a range of fellows. “It will be meaningful,” he says. “And who knows what multiplying effects that will have.”

As Jeff explains, the couple hopes their donation will spur a ripple effect, encouraging others and increasing in influence. Acknowledging a “bias toward teaching,” with its positive ramifications, they are overjoyed that the inaugural recipient, Oliver Hart, will be working on a project that has the potential for an even wider cultural impact.

Hart, the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard University, has taught at Harvard since 1993. In addition, Hart is the 2016 corecipient of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, and his research centers on ownership structure and contracts. His project in the fellowship’s inaugural year will continue his ongoing work on the social responsibility of business, studying the effectiveness of such tools as divestments and boycotts for influencing corporate behavior.

Such social consciousness has been close to the Padnoses’ hearts from the start, and Peg—the former nurse—deems Hart’s cause “very fitting.” Jeff, who came of age during the Vietnam War era, recalls his undergraduate thesis on a related topic: enlisting free enterprise in social topics.

This inaugural project also meshes with the Padnos family business. Although Padnos Metal may have started as “a junkyard,” as Jeff puts it, it has evolved into scrap recycling. Now, with two of their sons poised to take the firm into the future with a fourth generation of family ownership, the business has a goal of “sensible sustainability.”

“We aspire to be a living example of how the free enterprise system can work for all participants, meaning our customers, our employees, our communities, and, of course, our shareholders as well,” says Jeff. “We’re huge believers in the system, but the system needs help sometimes,” he says. With their generosity, Jeff and Peg Padnos are doing just that.

Jeff Padnos's family business may have started as “a junkyard,” but it has evolved into scrap recycling, with a goal of “sensible sustainability.” Photo by Hannah Ziegeler

Clea Simon is a novelist and freelance writer in Cambridge.

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