Serving Columbia Through Engagement and Giving
"Columbia was my growth engine, and it still moves me to be of service to others."
When Stephen Buchman ’59CC, ’62LAW thinks about the major pivot points in his life, attending Columbia College tops the list. "I started college young, at 16," he says. "Columbia was my growth engine, and it still moves me to be of service to others."
Steve credits the Core Curriculum for challenging and stretching him intellectually. But it was his introduction to a particular sport that would set his college experience apart and lead to his active involvement as an alumnus for more than half a century.
"The fencing team put on an exhibition for freshmen," Steve recalls. "The coach was very charismatic—he said that even if you had no prior experience, he could make you a national champion. I bit on that."
The fencing program built Steve's confidence and broadened his horizons. In fact, the first time he ever travelled by airplane was to compete in the NCAA championships in Lubbock, Texas, as a junior. He placed second in that tournament, a feat he would repeat the following year.
"Turns out, the coach was wrong," he jokes. "He didn't make me a national champion, but I got so much further than I ever would have expected."
A conversation begins
After graduation Steve went straight to Columbia Law School and then embarked on a career in real estate law. He stayed loosely connected to the University at first, mainly as a supporter of the fencing program, but that changed with the 1968 student protests at Columbia.
"It was a very painful time," he recalls. "I had heard that the fencing and basketball teams were going to be picketing the annual alumni dinner, and I was worried they might do something 'stupid,' so I decided to attend."
Steve recalls that the meeting was highly charged—a "clash of generations"—but the alumni and the student picketers finally entered into a meaningful conversation and eventually found common ground centered on their shared Columbia education. "That meeting is what got me involved in alumni activities and inspired a greater sense of connection to the University, its broader needs, and the crucial role that alumni could play."
As an active alumnus in the early 1970s, Steve had a particularly meaningful experience when he and another alumnus met with two African-American students on campus. "When we asked how they were adjusting to campus life, one student said to us, 'We're not eating.' " Steve recalls, "We were thunderstruck. Their parents could only afford to provide them with a small budget for food, enough to last about four weeks. These students and others they knew were subsisting on ketchup sandwiches and tea."
Steve and his colleague reported back to the Alumni Association, which immediately put together an interim emergency food plan—later expanded into a more substantial program by the College. "I still get emotional about it," Steve says. "It showed me what alumni could do, how our participation could lead to positive changes at the University."
Continued engagement through giving
Steve has established several charitable gift annuities (CGAs) with Columbia. These life-income gifts will make fixed payments to him for his lifetime. The remainders will then be directed to the Buchman Family Scholarship at Columbia College and to Columbia Athletics, supporting both the fencing program and The Fund for Excellence.
In addition, Steve continues to volunteer, makes annual gifts, and has included a provision in his will to support his family's scholarship.
"Since Columbia is going to be part of my estate giving anyway, charitable gift annuities make sense," he says. "I receive current income while knowing that my contributions will support the areas most special to me."
Having retired from the active practice of law more than twenty years ago, Steve now works two days a week as a career counselor at Columbia Law School—helping alumni and students explore their own career prospects. More than a job, it is yet another way for him to give back to an institution he feels was generous to him.
At Columbia's 2013 Commencement Steve was one of ten Columbia alumni awarded the prestigious Alumni Medal, honoring their distinguished service to the University. "As our names were announced, the emotion was totally overwhelming," he says.
"Would another college have brought this out in me?" he asks. "Possibly. But it was Columbia that did it, and I can never fully repay that."
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