On Oct. 3, 2019, the Yeshiva University community lost a dear and beloved professor, Bob Tufts, after a 10-year battle with cancer. Bob will be missed by students, faculty and alumni of Yeshiva University. What follows are reflections on the passing of this wonderful man.
Michael Strauss, Associate Dean, Sy Syms School of Business
Joe Bednarsh, Director, YU Athletics
Ken Davidoff, Sports Writer, New York Post
Michael Bettencourt, Communications Manager, Office of Marketing & Communications
Bob Tuft’s Patient Advocacy
A Tribute to Robert Tufts
Michael Strauss, Associate Dean, Sy Syms School of Business
I met Robert shortly after I arrived at YU after more than 40 years in the business world. We very quickly forged a very close relationship, and I am proud to say that I was instrumental in hiring him as a full-time clinical professor.
There is much I can say about Bob’s friendship, character and ethics as well as his commitment and his passion for his work. But the best tribute that I can give to Bob today is to share with you a few stories from the people that he loved so much: his students, his colleagues at YU, his department chair and director of athletics.
“I had the pleasure of having Professor Tufts during my first semester at school. My very first day of college, I was so nervous. However, I walked into my first class, and immediately Professor Tufts made me feel comfortable and happy to start this next chapter of my life. Professor Tufts made a genuine effort to get to know all of the students and even gave me my nickname that I now go by in college. I looked forward to his class each week and learned an immeasurable amount of knowledge of skills from him. He made every student’s voice heard and wanted to push us to think outside the box. I had been looking forward to taking more management classes with Professor Tufts and feel a total loss for words at the tragedy that has befallen us. All of YU benefited from Professor Tufts, and we will miss him greatly.”
“Without a doubt, Professor Tufts was one of my favorite professors, and I always looked forward to attending his class. My first interaction with him was the summer before I started school, when he called me (and every other student on his class roster) and introduced himself. He was always available to speak with, and I really admired his passion for his students. I was also fortunate enough to be the teacher’s sssistant of his post-Pesach class. YU and Sy Syms will not be the same without him.”
“For many of us, Professor Tufts was far and away our favorite professor and perhaps one of the most cherished personalities on campus. We loved many a great man and woman at YU, but Professor Tufts was different, one of a kind in a way no outsider can be made to understand, but his students (dare I say friends? or admirers? both certainly are true) all just knew and felt deeply. Our professor was a superb, non-conventional and forward-thinking student-centered educator, innately in touch with his students and helping us connect to his wisdom. More than his role in the classroom, our man was an accomplished professional who stood as a proud Jew and enriched the lives of so many Yeshiva students. Being with him was something we looked forward to. The world is not the same without him, and I cry for the world of Yeshiva and its student body that is left bereft of one of its best.”
“Professor Tufts was known first and foremost for being a great man. I had Professor Tufts my first semester in YU, and even though I had him for only one class, I was privileged to get to know him outside the classroom as well.”
“Professor Tufts could constantly be found by the third-floor couches (on the Beren campus) in the Sy Syms building, talking to students. He made time to talk to whomever wanted to talk. He chit-chatted with his students and gave advice on just about everything. He also had a great sense of humor, and after conversing with him, the students always felt good. I was one of those students who could be found talking to Professor Tufts by the couches, which he called ‘my office.’ He took a genuine interest in speaking to me about anything and gave me advice on classes, majors, graduate schools and career choices.
“Inside the classroom, he was a great professor. His classes were intellectually stimulating; they kept the entire class engaged and on its toes. He helped to push my creativity to the next level and to come up with out-of-the-box solutions. Before class, he often played music for everyone to enjoy and regaled us with stories.”
“Professor Tufts truly cared about everyone on an individual level. He would explain that decision-making should not be based on averages because most people are not an average. This embodied the way he treated others; he valued each and every person.”
“I had looked forward to seeing him this year in addition to taking my capstone course with him in the Spring and am very sad at this tremendous loss.”
Dr. Sharon Poczter, Associate Professor and Chair of the Strategy and Entrepreneurship Department
I worked for the past two years with Bob Tufts at YU. He was a colleague and a friend. Although I knew Bob for a relatively short time compared to others here, I think what I remember the most about Bob, and maybe it comes from his years in major league baseball, is that he was always so willing to help the proverbial team. He approached new work, new students, new challenges with an unbridled enthusiasm, always wanting to help make the University better. He was always there to help.
Bob was also devoted to his students. I had the pleasure of seeing him in class many times, and it didn’t seem like anything made him happier than sitting on his desk, throwing the class a difficult question and guiding them to an answer. He was a great educator, a wonderful colleague, a gentle giant and an all-around kind human. He walked this planet with kindness of heart and spirit. May his memory be a blessing.
A Sports Tribute
Joe Bednarsh, Director, YU Athletics
It’s always rewarding and fascinating to meet a person with myriad interests and abilities and a tremendous sense of love and obligation to his fellow man. Bob was such a man.
I knew Bob on multiple levels: he was my staff member, he was my teacher and he was my friend. He was also the person that when you passed him in the street, you were drawn into his orbit, and it was only 30 minutes later that you realized how long you’d been talking to him and how enjoyable it was—and how cold my lunch had become!
As the Athletic Director at Yeshiva University, I had the privilege to watch him with our baseball student-athletes, and to hear him tell it, they weren’t made to play that game—but not in the way you’d think. “Joe,” he said to me one time, “baseball is a game of failure and split-second decisions. Our kids are academic stars: an A- isn’t good enough for them; they don’t accept that failure—especially not 70% of the time—as a successful outing. Our kids have also studied Talmud all their lives, and they don’t know how to make split-second decisions—but they’re great at asking questions!”
He understood that as a coach, he was an educator. He understood that as an educator, he was a mentor. He understood that as a mentor, he was taking these young men on a journey for which his life experience had uniquely prepared him. Each of his players came away from those seasons not only as better players but as better men who understood that there was so much more to a decision than just the immediate result and to treat everyone they encountered with respect and to engage people in meaningful conversation. One of his players recounted that “in his Principles of Management class, Professor Tufts would emphasize—even as a CEO of a company—the importance of treating the doorman or janitor just as well as you would the CFO.”
As a student in the YU EMBA program, I had the privilege to sit with him weekly and delve into business decisions that companies made. Going back to school in my mid-40s meant that it had been 25 years since I had written academic papers, but Bob made my experience easier and profound. He would sit on the front of the desk, look us each in the eye and get us to figure out why companies made decisions. Any professor can come at that from the perspective of profit and loss, but Bob wanted us to understand the larger significance of the decision, the larger societal impact, the larger ethical rationale. We would talk after class until Security kicked us out and then in front of the building until I realized that if I wanted to stay married, I had to hurry back home.
It was in those talks that I heard about his other life: his advocacy for patient rights, his life of baseball, his life as a proud Jew, his life of cancer. I learned what it was like to pitch in the majors and everything—both challenging and wonderful—that came along with it. I learned about what kind of man Ben Carson was and what is was like to work at HUD. I learned he had a daughter who worked in sports marketing, and he would give me a wry smile each time I asked if she wanted to come work for me for less money and a horrible boss. His eyes would light up when we talked of those women.
There are so many of us who are richer for having known Bob Tufts and poorer for losing him. We should hang on to the things that stayed with us, hang on to the smiles we shared with him and hang on to the things that make us chuckle that are completely inappropriate to speak of in polite company. He will always have a special place in my heart and a permanent place in our program.
Bob was a great colleague, a true gentleman and a very dedicated teacher. It is hard to believe that I will not run into him in the hallways or chat with him in my office. May his memory be a blessing through the stories we share, and may we always be grateful that we had Robert Tufts in our lives.
How Bob Tufts More than Lived Up to his “Future Star” Billing
Ken Davidoff, Sports Writer, New York Post
In the most technical sense, Bob Tufts did not live up to the “Future Star” title that Topps bestowed on him back in 1982.In reality, though, Bob was a star and then some—at more positions than Ben Zobrist, from more angles than David Cone.
Tufts, who pitched in a total of 27 major-league games from 1981 through 1983, left us last Friday morning at age 63, with his wife Suzanne and daughter Abby at his side, following a long battle with multiple myeloma, the same type of cancer that took the great Mel Stottlemyre from us, and his social-media corners, on Twitter and Facebook, reacted energetically with sadness and tributes. A Massachusetts native who attended Princeton and settled down in Queens after retiring from baseball, Bob touched so many people in so many ways.
“So sad to hear of his passing,” Bob Brenly wrote of Tufts in a text message. “He was without a doubt the smartest teammate I ever played with….Also, a tremendous competitor. I really thought his career was going to be much longer than it ended up being. He was the very definition of a ‘funky lefty.’ I know he went on to accomplish more important things than baseball after he left the game.”
Brenly, who enjoyed an All-Star career with the Giants before managing the Diamondbacks to the 2001 World Series title, and current Mets coach Chili Davis, also an All-Star player, shared the Topps 1982 “San Francisco Giants Future Stars” card with Tufts. That’s some company, eh? Tufts very much enjoyed his immortalization on this card. He held no bitterness over being “the other guy” among this trio, although he did wonder whether his proximity to the Kansas City Royals’ drug scandal of 1983—the Giants traded him to the Royals in March 1982—limited his baseball opportunities.
While he never worked in organized baseball after he stopped playing, the game remained a huge part of Tufts’ life. Working in the New York area, first in finance and then in academia, he followed not only the games and the players, but the off-the-field issues. He developed a college course centering on iconic Players Association leader Marvin Miller; he occasionally wrote about baseball for smaller publications and websites; and he even attended some news conferences at Major League Baseball headquarters to advocate for retired players’ pension funds. Just this past year, he served as the pitching coach for Yeshiva University; Bob had converted to Judaism as an adult.
I met Bob in the mid-2000s when I was Newsday’s baseball columnist. I had written something supportive of the union, a subject matter and opinion right in Bob’s wheelhouse, and he sent me a complimentary email. I remember thinking how cool it was that an actual former big-leaguer had taken the time to reach out to me. In short time, as the emails became more frequent and graduated into the occasional Manhattan lunch, I learned that Bob carried himself with zero airs. The only hint of his athletic background was his size; at 6-foot-5, he stood out among a crowd, and as I sat shiva for my father four-plus years ago, more than one friend and family member whispered to me, “Who is that enormous, boisterous man standing by the window?”
“Oh, that’s just Tufts,” I said, laughing.
He was boisterous for sure, and hilarious — he loved “The Simpsons” and, man, did he love a good argument; we wound up disagreeing on plenty, always good-naturedly. Back when blogs were en vogue, I encouraged him to comment on my blog at Newsday. He dove in head-first, getting into it with other readers, occasionally regaling us with an old story about Frank Robinson or Vida Blue. My trademark response to one of his trouble-stirring posts was “Tufts! (shakes fist).” What a treat it was to have him in that little community.
In 2009, Bob shared the unfortunate news of his cancer on the blog—not in a quest for pity but rather because that’s how he rolled, as an open book. He made clear he was going to fight like crazy, and he more than honored those words. He treated his illness as another job, becoming a patients’ advocate, sharing daily details of his clinical trials and other medical journeys on his Twitter account, attending medical conferences. Always, he helped others. It came naturally to him.
I’ll forever be grateful that the 2015 World Series ended in five games because it allowed me to attend Bob’s 60th birthday party in Manhattan, which was also the sixth anniversary of his diagnosis. That’s where this picture of the two of us is from.
I’m proud to be in a photo with Bob Tufts. And I’m not the only one.
“It is even more of an honor to share a rookie card with Bob and Chili, given all the great work he did post-baseball,” Brenly wrote of Tufts. “He will be missed.”
We always miss the stars most of all, don’t we?
A Whole New Ball Game
Michael Bettencourt, Communications Manager, Office of Marketing & Communications
(May 29, 2018)
From Major League Baseball to Patient Advocacy, The Many Lives of Sy Syms Professor Bob TuftsAs his students know, Sy Syms School of Business Adjunct Instructor in Management Bob Tufts is a big man with a big heart whose single lifetime has encompassed vastly different roles and careers. From pitching in the major leagues to converting to Judaism, working in finance on Wall Street and battling cancer to become a fierce advocate for patients dealing with the medical system, Tufts has a wealth of experiences to share in the classroom.
His baseball career began in Lynnfield, Massachusetts, thanks to his brother Bill, four years his senior. “He was an All-State pitcher in Massachusetts and had a scholarship to the University of Florida, and he had teams that were trying to sign him as well right out of high school—he was that good. So, I tagged along and played a lot of baseball against kids who were older than I, and it made me sharp.” By the time he was in ninth grade, Tufts was working his way into playing American Legion baseball, having skipped the Babe Ruth League.
His brother ended up signing with the Chicago Cubs, “and Len Merullo, longtime scout for the Cubs, said, ‘You’ll probably get a chance, too, someday.’ I said, ‘C’mon, my brother’s so much better—this is ridiculous.’ And he said, ‘I’ll make sure that people know about you.’”
Word did get around the enclosed world of baseball scouts, and Tufts was admitted to Princeton University because of his athletic ability “even though I also had straight As and was a member of the National Honor Society.” At Princeton, he studied finance and built a solid pitching record, burnishing his skills in the summer by playing in the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League in New Jersey. In 1976, when he started the season by winning his first five games, “all of a sudden, I’m getting phone calls from teams asking, ‘If you’re drafted, will you play?’ And I said, ‘Hell, yeah!’ Cleveland, Seattle and San Francisco called. And the San Francisco Giants drafted me in the 12th round on June 7, 1977.”
At first, Tufts was excited by his new life: “I’m off to Casa Grande, Arizona, for training, then off to Great Falls, Montana. ‘I’m going to see the world!’ My first game is played in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, and it’s, ‘All right, we’re taking a bus over the border!’”
But pro ball was not an easy life, and before long, it began to take a toll on his pitching arm. “Back then, we didn’t have pitching coaches; they just threw you out there to see what happened.” It also didn’t help that Tufts tended to throw pitches that had high torque, like sinkers and sliders, sometimes throwing 120 to 130 pitches a game. “It’s not a natural thing to put your arm back a hundred times and throw as hard as you can. The body is not meant to do that.”
By 1983, it was clear that this phase of his life was coming to an end. In 1982, he was traded to the Kansas City Royals, and then traded again on June 7, 1983, to the Cincinnati Reds. By September of that year, he was granted free agency. It was time to find another path.
Interestingly enough, while playing ball, Tufts was already seeking a new way forward with his life: in 1980, he began the process of converting to Judaism.
Tufts was raised in the United Church of Christ, but as he said in a 2007 lecture at the Yogi Berra Museum and Education Center, he, along with his family, “were upset with the way the Protestant church was going. The church left me more than I left the church.” This shift away from Protestantism was also a historical movement for Tufts, since his family traced their origins in the country back to the 17th century.
Many things about Judaism attracted him. “Having a personal relationship with God and the imperative to take responsibility for your life and do simple good deeds spoke to me. But the religion is evolving and intellectual, and I enjoyed that fact as well. I enjoyed all these sages and all these people taking individual words and moving them, shaping them, looking underneath—trying to put sense into a world, trying to put things into a package that people can deal with.”
He underwent conversion at the University of Virginia (UVA), under the guidance of Rabbi Sheldon Ezring, then head of the school’s Hillel. His soon-to-be-wife, Suzanne, whom he’d met at Princeton, was studying at the law school, and in the off-season Tufts worked as UVA’s assistant sports information director. He completed the process in 1982, and in November of that year, he and Suzanne were married in a ceremony officiated by Rabbi Ezring at the Prospect House on the Princeton campus.
By 1984, he was enrolled in the MBA program at the Graduate Business School of Columbia University while Suzanne worked for the law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges. “Having been out of school for a while, it was not easy at first. But I was so dedicated to my studies, and like most things in my life, I went a bit over the top,” he said, getting on the bus at Sutton Place and East 54th and switching to the uptown bus on Broadway so that he could have study time as he made his way to the Columbia campus.
Pursuing a business degree was a good fit with Tufts’ life. Not only did he study finance as an undergraduate, he had also had a long apprenticeship under his father, William. “My dad—you’ll never see this again—worked 33 years at the same small savings and loan company in Revere, Massachusetts. I added up the checks by hand, sorted them by digit code. We knew everyone, and everyone knew me. We had our colorful stories—the gamblers who would come in and peel off hundreds to pay their mortgages—but never a fraud, never a bad check, because everyone knew everyone.”
After graduation, Tufts went to work on Wall Street “at multiple firms that no longer exist”: Thomson McKinnon, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, to name a few, then took a position on the equities side at Jefferies. But working on futures, foreign exchange and trading, and U.S. equities for international clients began to get dull, and Tufts became frustrated because “I wanted to do something of value.”
He needn’t have worried: just as life had brought him the gifts of pitching, Judaism and Suzanne, it had something else in store for him.
“I was never sick a day in my life, never missed anything, but in 2009, when I was taking my daughter Abigail on her school visit trips, I started getting sick, not just for a day but for two or three.” A blood test came back with a very high iron count, and his doctor told him he needed to go to an oncologist, who told him he had myeloma, a blood plasma-related cancer with a very high risk of mortality.
By this time, the doctors estimated that 30 percent of the bone cells in his hip, pelvis, and lower spine were cancerous, so treatment needed to start immediately. After a therapy that stabilized his condition, he was prepped for an autologous stem cell transplant, in which his own blood-forming stem cells would be collected and stored and then given back to him after treating them to kill the cancer. During the prep they discovered that Tufts had been born with only one kidney, which meant that they had to be extra-cautious about keeping his hydration level high and constant.
After five weeks of a process that Tufts described as “rebooting me with my own cells,” he got to come home on his 54th birthday: November 2, 2009. Since then, he has been under a variety of regimens to keep the cancer muted and non-toxic.
As he recuperated, Tufts thought a lot about what to do next, especially about doing something that would add value to his life and the lives of those around him. The answer to that question was embedded in his family’s genealogy: teaching. “My family is generations of teachers—we can go back to the 1820s.” Tufts recounted a story about his grandmother, who taught physics in the 1920s in New Haven, Connecticut, even though it was considered “improper for a woman to teach physics.” Nevertheless, she persisted: “She was a pistol.”
So, teaching it would be, and in 2010, Tufts worked as an adjunct in three schools, including Yeshiva University, where he taught a sports marketing course for Sy Syms. “I wanted to find a place where I could do more for students,” he said, and at YU, he found a more entrepreneurial atmosphere, which fit him perfectly.
“I adore teaching. There’s not a day I don’t enjoy it. And I adore the kids. They want to talk before class. They want to talk after class. They want me to put on some music before class if they’re there early. So, I play jazz for them sometimes – Thelonius Monk is a favorite, ‘Straight, No Chaser’ – I’ll put on some classical, some overtures to get them going – sometimes Metallica if I really want to gear them up.”
He peppers his Sy Syms students with questions and challenges them the way he used to challenge batters with his specialty sinkers and sliders as he helps them navigate the principles of marketing, leadership and entrepreneurship.
“Their religious studies bring so much to the classes I teach—that cognitive habit of taking things, looking for new meaning, questioning, makes it stick in their heads—they’re good secular thinkers, they’re good religious thinkers, but above all they’re good people.”
The students reciprocated his love by awarding Tufts the Lillian and William Silber Professor of the Year Award at this year’s Gala Awards Dinner.
These days, Tufts leads a busy life along with his teaching. He never really left the world of baseball even after he retired. He has served as president of the New York State Chapter of the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association and conducted baseball clinics in Cooperstown for Jewish Major Leaguers, Inc. and in Israel for the Israel Association of Baseball. He has written columns on baseball for Examiner.com, editorials on sports for major newspapers and an essay for the ESPN book Fathers and Daughters and Sports. He has also appeared as a panelist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, the Yogi Berra Museum, the 92nd Street Y, Temple Emanu-El, the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Isabella Freedman Center.
This year, Tufts also volunteered as a pitching coach for YU’s men’s baseball team. “He was really helpful,” said Greg Fox, associate athletics director, “and he’s also a really great guy.”
Tufts also is also a vigorous advocate for patients’ rights. His columns on cancer care and health issues have appeared in major publications like The Hill and Huffington Post. He has appeared on panels on behalf of patients at medical conventions such as American Society of Hematology, American Society of Clinical Oncology, Biotechnology Industry Association and Closing the Gap Now. “My two core talking points are these,” he said. “First, we want patient and doctor access and choice in medicine—we want the right treatment at the right time for the right patient. All the restrictions that deal with these have to be justified, or they should be gone.
“Second, innovation is crucial, such as the proposal to use artificial intelligence to scan patient narratives to cut the time frame for drug development and reduce risk. With the right innovation, we will end up with cheaper drugs and more drugs, or we’ll end up with the same amount of cost to the system but better targeted care, which saves money in the long term.”
Tufts’ short-term plans? “I hope to spend parts of the summer at Rockport, Massachusetts, where I can write and bring my website up to date so that I can begin to disseminate my ideas,” he said. And just in case someone gives him a chance, he’s got a couple of lectures in his back pocket he wouldn’t mind giving, one on Jewish assimilation into American society through sports and one that traces the division of labor and management theory from Adam Smith to Moneyball.
His long-term plan is simple: “I want to teach here as long as I can. I love some of the changes going on at the school. Our department chair, Dr. Sharon Poczter, is wonderful, the department is going to grow and change, and there’s a lot more we can do to help students get on with their lives.”
Bob Tuft’s Patient Advocacy
Bob was a strong and noted advocate for the rights of patients. Below are links to some of the work he did in that area.
Meeting with Social Media Patient Advocates
Co-Authors Article on Cost vs. Value in Cancer Care
Advocates for Patient Choice
Speaks Out Against Restrictions in Health Care