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A Good and Generous Man

When Jerry Kohlberg ’46, H’86, member emeritus of the Board of Managers, passed away on Martha’s Vineyard July 30, the College lost one of its most loyal supporters. 

“I frequently sought out Jerry’s advice on the many issues the College faced,” says Neil Austrian, Board chair from 1989 to 1996. “He possessed a quiet dignity and a great sense of humor, coupled with a twinkle in his eye that invited the conversation to continue.”

In a 2004 essay in The Meaning of Swarthmore, Kohlberg wrote that his first visit to the Quaker Meetinghouse on campus left an indelible impression. 

“Friends stood up for what they believed and had a straightforward approach to others, always leaving room for understanding and forgiveness,” he wrote. 

Thanks to the GI Bill, Kohlberg earned an MBA from Harvard Business School and an LL.M. from Columbia University School of Law. Later, he established the Fund for Veterans’ Education. 

After serving as senior partner at Bear, Stearns & Co., Kohlberg co-founded Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Co., an investment firm that pioneered the leveraged buyout, establishing dominance of the buyout industry and inspiring the 1990 bestseller Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco. 

In 1987, Kohlberg left the firm, tired of the “overpowering greed” pervading business life. Preferring “deals where reason still prevails,” he formed the private equity firm Kohlberg & Co. with son Jim in Mount Kisco, N.Y. 

Kohlberg retired in 1994 to focus on his philanthropy, including campaign finance reform, education of military veterans, and other education and health initiatives. 

At Swarthmore, honoring his roommate and friend, he established the Philip Evans [’48] Scholar Program to empower students to become critical thinkers and engaged, compassionate world citizens. Thirty years later, more than 100 Evans scholars have made their mark globally. Currently, 22 scholars from 16 states attend Swarthmore. 

Kohlberg’s impact on campus is omnipresent, though understated—in keeping with his wishes. In 1996, Kohlberg Hall provided a new home to four academic departments and the College’s first coffee bar. A year later, Trotter Hall, one of the College’s oldest academic buildings, was transformed by a new central atrium and lounge areas for the history, political science, and classics departments, while basement seminar rooms became light-filled teaching and learning spaces. In 2000, the Mullan Tennis Center opened. It comprised three tennis courts with championship-caliber surfaces, lighting, and an above-court viewing area. 

Kohlberg spearheaded the renovation of Parrish Hall, from the repair and strengthening of its slate roof to new safety and energy-efficient air-handling systems. 

His support to students interested in careers in business and entrepreneurship included the Educating Socially Responsible Leaders Program. 

Kohlberg’s “biggest kick,” he says, came from a Career Services program to help students prepare for jobs in business, particularly, the “Career Closet,” which loans students suits for interviews. 

Serving on the Board from 1972 to 1983, then 1989 to 1994 when he became a member emeritus, Kohlberg received an honorary doctor of laws degree in 1986. 

Kohlberg once described Swarthmore as “an oasis of civility” and the place where he learned “the rewards of serious scholarship and the pleasures to be derived from lifelong learning.” 


+Click here for the full text of the letter Valerie Smith wrote to honor Kohlberg’s memory.

+Kohlberg Foundation named six institutions where donations can be made meant to honor Kohlberg’s memory, including Swarthmore. Click here to learn more