November 26, 2018
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Beatrice “Buddy” Cummings Mayer P’71 H’87, trustee emerita at Kenyon, passed away on Sept. 15, 2018. Ninety-seven years old at the time of her death, she was a resident of Chicago and Delray Beach, Florida.
“I feel honored to have had the opportunity to get to know Buddy, a wonderful leader, philanthropist and advocate,” said Kenyon president Sean Decatur. “At the age of 97, she still spoke with excitement and joy about art, especially the work of artists she had met and collected over the years.
“Buddy also spoke with passion about issues that meant a great deal to her, especially issues of accessibility for those with physical challenges or disabilities. Caring and compassionate, tough and determined, with a sharp and wry sense of humor, she will be missed, but she left behind a strong legacy of philanthropy and leadership in Chicago and at here at the College.”
“My clearest memory of Buddy Mayer, from multiple meetings of the Kenyon Board [of Trustees], was her unflagging belief in the College,” said Robert Oden Jr., Kenyon’s president from 1995 to 2002. “She was convinced that it was among the finest liberal arts colleges in the country — and she was, of course, absolutely right — and she never let her fellow trustees forget this. We — all of us who love Kenyon — owe a great deal both to Buddy’s confidence in the College’s greatness and to her generosity to Kenyon.”
Born in Montreal, Mayer was the third child and only daughter of Ruth Kellert Cummings and Nathan Cummings, himself the first child of Lithuanian Jews named Komiensky who had immigrated to Canada. He had dropped out of high school to work in the family’s shoe store and as a traveling salesman before finding success in the food business. By the end of World War II, he had founded the Consolidated Grocers Corporation (later known as Consolidated Foods and the Sara Lee Corporation) and earned the nickname “Duke of Groceries.”
After the Cummings family moved to Baltimore, Mayer attended Mount St. Agnes College (which later merged with Loyola University Maryland) and received an associate’s degree there. She then entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she majored in chemistry. Upon earning her bachelor’s degree in 1943, she worked with the American Red Cross in Chicago, to which her family had relocated, and undertook graduate studies in the School of Social Service Administration (SSA) at the University of Chicago before marrying in 1947.
Mayer continued to be concerned with social issues throughout her life, as witnessed by her involvement in a wide variety of civic causes in Chicago and Florida. She also adopted a number of her father’s interests, among them art and philanthropy, which led her to influential positions on foundation and museum boards in the United States and abroad. She was perhaps best known for her work with Chicago’s Art Institute and Museum of Contemporary Art and with the Nathan Cummings Foundation, which has focused its giving in recent years on programs to combat climate change and new approaches to addressing issues of inequality.
At Commencement in 1987, Kenyon awarded Mayer an honorary doctorate in humane letters, presented by her friend Joseph F. Slate, now professor emeritus of art. In the citation, Slate noted the “infinite variety of [her] generous ways” and added that “the aged, the ill, the handicapped, hospitals and schools, orchestras and art museums — all have been served by [her] forthright counsel and benefaction.”
Mayer’s many interests also encompassed a number of educational enterprises. During her time as an active trustee of the College, from 1976 to 1993, she served as chair of the Student Affairs Committee and as a member of several other committees. She also spent many years on the Visiting Committee of SSA, where her support through the Nathan Cummings Foundation helped house the Graduate Program in Health Administration and Policy, launch the school’s program for older adults, and attract to the faculty Neil Guterman, a developmental psychologist known for his work on violence prevention.
Over the years, the Mayer family, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, and other charitable institutions associated with the Mayers and the Cummingses made numerous gifts to Kenyon in support of facilities, people, and programs. Among the facilities to which they contributed were the Mayer Art Center (also known as the Art Barn and currently the site of Kenyon’s Craft Center), the Brown Family Environmental Center, the Gund Gallery, Horvitz Hall and the elevator in Peirce Hall, part of Buddy Mayer’s crusade for accessibility on campus. They also contributed to scholarship funds and other recurring needs through the Kenyon Fund and the Kenyon Parents Fund, and to Kenyon Hillel, accessibility initiatives and women’s athletics.
“I met Buddy in the fall of 1995 during the weekend of Rob Oden’s inauguration,” remembers Kathryn Brechler Lake, Kenyon’s director of board relations and presidential events. “There were a lot of new faces that weekend, and Buddy’s became one of the most friendly and familiar over the next 10 years or so. Even as a retired trustee, she was a frequent — and vocal — participant in board meetings.
“Buddy, who had some difficulty with mobility herself in later years, was a firm believer in making our buildings, both new and historic, accessible to all,” adds Brechler Lake, who recalls that Mayer’s maladies included hearing loss, macular degeneration and sciatica. “It wasn’t always easy for her to participate in committee meetings and attend dinners here on campus, but she did so and with zest. She was a good friend to many of us at the College and to Kenyon as a whole.”
Mayer is survived by a daughter, Ruth F. Mayer, and her husband, Akiva Gross; a daughter-in-law, Debra Weese-Mayer; and five grandchildren. She was preceded in death by her husband, Robert B. Mayer H’69, who served as a Kenyon trustee from 1970 until his death in 1974, and a son, Robert N. Mayer ’71, a leading elder-care reformer who died in 2015.
A memorial gathering is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 23, 2018, at the Ritz-Carlton, Water Tower Place, 160 East Pearson Street, Chicago, Illinois, 60611. A private family entombment will follow at Chicago’s Rosehill Cemetery.