Remembering Thomas Stemberg 

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Early Indy member and Staples founder passes away at 66.

On Friday, October 23rd, the world lost one of the most astute businessmen of the 21st century. Thomas George Stemberg ’71, most famous for founding the international office supply retailer Staples, passed away at the age of 66 in his home in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, after losing a two-year battle with gastric cancer. Emerging from a tough immigrant childhood where he lost his father at age eleven and lived in Austria with his mother until college, Stemberg has touched many lives not only at Harvard, but also around the world through his many business ventures and philanthropic work.

Though Stemberg was a global man, his loss hit particularly close to home for two seemingly different institutions at his alma mater: Harvard Men’s Basketball and the Harvard Independent. Stemberg has been a longtime supporter of both with his time, talent, and treasure. As an undergraduate, Stemberg played for the basketball band and was an early publisher for the Indy. Even after graduation, Stemberg’s support remained unwavering. He was an invaluable benefactor to Harvard Men’s Basketball, while also being the single greatest donor to the Independent.

Considering the Indy was founded in 1969, Stemberg is the first person from the Indy‘s earliest days to pass away. Though he was not one of the founding members, he was crucial in shaping the Indy and making it the paper it is today: Harvard’s oldest weekly newspaper that dares to uncover the other side of the story through in-depth analysis and innovative narrative styles.

The Indy‘s first president Morris Abram ’71 offers a couple memories he has of Stemberg: “Mark Shields, co-founder and first publisher of the Independent, did many great things during his tenure, but recruiting Tom Stemberg as his successor ranked high on the list.” Abram continued, saying, “Entering Harvard as a scholarship student with experience in another culture, Tom arrived with a special appreciation of the opportunities in his country of choice.”

Describing Stemberg’s work procuring advertisments and managing the business board on the Indy, Abram said, “Tom took every pitch as an exciting personal challenge. His drive to put the Independent on the map generated innovative ideas far transcending those of a traditional publisher.”

Mark Shields ’71, the Harvard Independent‘s first publisher, spoke of his first time meeting Stemberg: “At our first meeting, within a few minutes time, Tom’s business savvy was apparent.” He added, “He was equally passionate about seeking ‘scoops’ and other opportunities to beat the Crimson to a story or types of coverage for the entertainment section.” In true Indy spirit, Stemberg made sure the paper had a competitive edge to beat the Crimson to stories on then-new University President Derek Bok among other major news events of the time. Shields also says he and Abram felt secure about the Indy‘s future once it was in Stemberg’s hands.

Stemberg’s support for both Harvard Men’s Basketball and the Harvard Independent wasn’t purely financial. He also frequented games as a member of the Friends of Harvard Basketball and attended several Independent reunions. Richard Paisner ’75 elaborated, “Despite his extraordinary business success, he never forgot the Independent.” On his impact on current student writers, he said, “He modeled for the students important behaviors we can all hope will stay with them.” Paisner, whose daughter is a member of the Harvard cheerleading team, adds, “He resurrected Harvard basketball. Tom’s efforts made it possible for us to watch her (and the team) at March Madness in New Mexico.”

David Smith ’75, a former sports editor of the Harvard Independent and longtime member of the graduate board, also offers a few remarks on the profound impact Stemberg had on the paper. Two Tom Stembergs come to his mind, “the one I read about in the media and the one I saw via the Indy.” He continues, “The media Stemberg was a hard-charging entrepreneurial titan, founder of businesses, friend of the rich and powerful. Then there was the Indy Stemberg, who radiated goodwill, a vaguely disheveled and shy but cheerful brotherly or avuncular fellow who always looked at you half-sideways, as if tuning into a Wi-Fi signal only he could pick up, but who at the same time wanted only the best.”

Smith recalled when he was chair of the graduate board and worked with Stemberg to make the Indy‘s endowment possible: “In March 2007, Katherine Chan ’08, Edward Chen ’09, and I ventured to Tom’s private-equity offices for a face-to-face meeting where we would ask him for the largest grant the Indy has ever received.” How did Stemberg respond to the request? He followed through, of course, and even rallied his contemporaries to give through a matching program.

In addition to the Indy, Stemberg’s enormous generosity also benefited the Harvard Men’s Basketball team. Coach Tommy Amaker and his successors will always be the ‘Thomas G. Stemberg ’71 Family Endowed Coach for Harvard Men’s Basketball. Coach Amaker says, “Tom’s presence will be missed in our program in more ways than we can count, but we know that he will always be with us in spirit.”

Bob Scalise, the John D. Nichols ’53 Family Director of Athletics, also shares his memories of what Stemberg meant to the basketball team. “I remember seeing Tom in the stands at men’s basketball games before it was fashionable, and I could sense his love affair with Harvard basketball,” he reminiscenced, “It was my honor to have worked with Tom. He will forever be a part of our program.”

Stemberg’s life is marked not only by his immeasurable business savvy through having succeeded at many ventures, but also his life is marked by an immense propensity for generosity and simply being present for the things that mattered to him. His legacy may continue to live on Forbes lists and at his many businesses, but at Harvard, Stemberg’s legacy continues on through the Men’s Basketball Team and the pages of the Harvard Independent.

 

Shaquilla Harrigan ’16 ([email protected]) thanks Tom Stemberg for his love for the Indy. His generosity and ‘go-getter’ spirit have shaped the Indy into the paper it is today.