UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State has named longtime benefactors Gene and Roz Chaiken as its 2021 Philanthropists of the Year. The award recognizes individuals, couples or families who have demonstrated exceptional generosity in the promotion and support of the University. The Chaikens are cumulatively the most generous donors in the history of the College of the Liberal Arts, with much of their support going to scholarships for undergraduates in the college with financial need.
Gene and Roz Chaiken honored as Penn State's Philanthropists of the Year
“It’s impossible to quantify the impact Gene and Roz Chaiken have had on this University overall and on the College of the Liberal Arts specifically. They certainly deserve this honor, and I’m pleased we can recognize them among our most ardent supporters,” said Penn State President Eric Barron. “Because of the Chaikens’ generosity, hundreds of students have been able to afford a Penn State experience, and the college’s academic programs have been permanently enhanced. Despite their status as high-level philanthropists, Gene and Roz remain grounded and humble, asking only that their ‘Chaiken Scholars,’ as they call them, consider giving back to the University one day as they are able.”
Gene Chaiken is a 1962 graduate of the University, with a degree in business administration. The Chaikens have been making philanthropic gifts to his alma mater — and especially to the College of the Liberal Arts — for decades. They chose the Liberal Arts as their initial philanthropic focus both to help establish the Jewish Studies program and to reinforce their deep admiration for former Dean Susan Welch and her vision for the future of the college. Their first major gift was in 1989, when they joined forces with Gene’s brother, Sheldon, and his wife, Gail, to endow the Chaiken Family Chair in Jewish Studies. They followed that gift with other philanthropic contributions to the Jewish Studies program, often encouraging other Liberal Arts benefactors to join them.
Perhaps their most significant contributions came when Roz, concerned with the rising cost of Penn State tuition, said she wanted to do something that would directly benefit students. The Penn State Trustee Scholarship Program offered the perfect solution for the Chaikens, who decided to establish the Gene and Roz Chaiken Trustee Scholarship in 2008, followed in 2013 by the Chaiken Family Trustee Scholarship. To date, these endowments have resulted in 987 scholarships — amounting to nearly $6.2 million in student support. In 2019, the Chaikens cemented their position as the University’s largest Trustee Scholarship donors when they surprised Clarence Lang, who had recently been named Susan Welch Dean of the College of the Liberal Arts, with two substantial checks to add to their scholarships. They have since surprised Lang several more times with gifts to the college.
Most recently, the Chaikens made yet another significant contribution to establish the Roz and Gene Chaiken Center for Student Success in the College of the Liberal Arts, which will provide students with resources, programming and other support to help them succeed in their studies.
“Gene and Roz Chaiken were among the first Liberal Arts benefactors I met when I joined the college in 2019,” said Clarence Lang, Susan Welch Dean of the College of the Liberal Arts. “What struck me more immediately than their generous spirit was their genuine warmth and affection for our students.That sense has been amplified these past two years as I have witnessed the way they interact with their scholarship recipients and other members of the college community. Liberal Arts is a better place because of Gene and Roz, and I can’t imagine more perfect candidates for Penn State’s Philanthropist of the Year award.”
In addition to being a Penn State benefactor, Gene has served the University in several other ways. From 2003-05, he was a governor’s nonvoting representative to the Penn State Board of Trustees, and he served as a member of the board from 2005 to 2010. He is an emeritus member of the Liberal Arts Development Council, a Penn State Alumni Fellow (2004), and a Penn State Distinguished Alumnus (2013). In 2009, he was awarded the College of the Liberal Arts’ Sparks Centennial Medal for outstanding service. In 2013, the college created and presented Roz and Gene with the inaugural Chaiken Leadership Award, which annually recognizes an individual or couple for outstanding generosity.
Together through time; united by family and purpose
The Chaikens’ story is a love story dating back 62 years to when the couple met at summer camp. Gene was a rising Penn State sophomore at the time; Roz was a rising high school sophomore. Looking for a girl to date at summer camp, Gene asked a friend to recommend someone. The friend pointed to Roz.
“I was on stage, dancing in ‘42nd Street,’” said Roz, joking that her stage career was restricted to summer camp. “Gene asked me out, and we have been together ever since.”
Gene’s father would drive Roz to Penn State to visit with Gene on weekends. Though his fraternity brothers would tease him at the time about having such a young girlfriend, Gene said his affection has not diminished in the years since. "Roz is still my favorite part of the day," he said.
After graduating from Penn State, Gene served six months on active duty in the U.S. Army, followed by five-and-a-half years in the Army Reserve. Upon his return from active duty, he began working at Almo Corporation, Roz’s father’s family business, just months before marrying Roz in 1963 — a union that would produce a son, two daughters and seven grandsons, three of whom are current Penn State students. Gene became Almo’s chairman, president and chief executive officer in 1973 upon the death of his father-in-law and today is chairman of the board; Roz is executive vice president. Their son, Warren, is the company’s president and chief executive officer. Gene and Roz say they would love to see the company become a fourth-generation family business, should one of their seven grandsons be interested in taking the helm one day. “Our grandsons are the light of our lives,” said Roz.
Like the Chaikens themselves, Almo Corporation is dedicated to philanthropic endeavors and community service, values the couple traces to their childhoods.
“My father was extremely generous,” said Roz. “When he was president of Almo, people would come in and tell him if they were in need of something. He was always right there to help them out. Employees, their family, sometimes even people he didn’t know. And I saw that growing up.”
Gene was 11 years old when his father announced that his brother should forego a senatorial scholarship so it could go to someone who needed the money more.
“That was the first time I saw my family participating in some kind of philanthropy, and it really made an impression on me,” said Gene. “Even though it would have helped our family — we were very middle class — my father thought there was someone who needed it more.”
For Gene and Roz, the call from President Barron saying they had been named the 2021 Penn State Philanthropists of the Year came as a complete surprise.
“We are so very humbled by this honor,” said Roz, noting that meeting their scholarship recipients makes her feel like a “rock star.” “We don’t give in order to receive recognition. We know we are fortunate to be able to do good things, and we are just glad we can do something at Penn State that has a direct impact on students.”
“Our family has a saying: ‘Helping other people is a privilege, not a chore,’” added Gene. “That is the whole basis of our philanthropy. We are very honored to be recognized in this way, but our hope is that others who hear our story will think about what they can do to help others.”
The Chaikens’ support has advanced "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by serving communities and fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit greaterpennstate.psu.edu.