Joel E. Smilow, a 1954 graduate of Yale College, has done a great deal for his alma mater. In the 1980s he made a seven-figure gift to endow the head football coach position, a post held at the time by the legendary Carm Cozza. He was the lead donor to the renovation and expansion of the Lapham Field House, now called the Smilow Field Center, and over the years he endowed five other coaching positions. He stewarded the major gifts component of the university’s “… and for Yale” capital campaign in the 1990s and received the university’s highest honor, the Yale Medal, in 1993 for these and numerous other efforts.
A decade later, after serving as treasurer and then secretary of the Yale College Class of 1954, he played a key role in the implementation of that class’s $120 million gift to Yale, the largest class gift in the university’s history.
Now Smilow, with his wife, Joan, has gone a big step further. On October 31, before some 200 guests gathered in the East Pavilion of Yale-New Haven Hospital (YNHH), the former CEO, chairman and president of Playtex was thanked for his transformational gift supporting a new $467 million cancer hospital, now under construction. When it opens in 2009, the comprehensive patient care facility will be known as the Smilow Cancer Hospital.
“We are building one of the finest patient-focused cancer care facilities in the country,” said Marna P. Borgstrom, M.P.H., president and CEO of YNHH. “We are very grateful for Joel and Joan Smilow’s overwhelmingly generous gift to the cancer hospital, and for sharing our vision of creating a place of hope and compassion for cancer patients.”
The new hospital will integrate all oncology patient services at YNHH and the School of Medicine in one building specifically designed to deliver cancer care, and will provide specialized facilities for faculty physicians and community-based providers to provide multidisciplinary care to cancer patients. The 14-story facility will add nearly 500,000 square feet of new space and 112 inpatient beds, along with expanded outpatient treatment facilities, operating rooms and infusion suites, a specialized women’s cancer center focused on breast cancer and gynecologic oncology, and dedicated floors for diagnostic and therapeutic radiology.
Yale University President Richard C. Levin also expressed gratitude for the donation. “This generous gift will have a lasting impact on the lives of countless patients who will benefit from the state-of-the-art clinical care,” he said. “We are deeply thankful for Joel and Joan’s dedicated support.”
According to Robert J. Alpern, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine and Ensign Professor of Medicine, the new cancer hospital will transform cancer care at Yale for both doctors and patients. “Medical school faculty members will be able to offer the latest, cutting-edge therapies, integrating improved care—which will be much more comfortable for our patients—with clinical research,” Alpern said. “Joel and Joan Smilow are assuring the future of a very important aspect of patient care at Yale.”
Yale Cancer Center (YCC) Director Richard L. Edelson, M.D., says that the Smilows’ gift “is happening at exactly the right time,” and is the latest instance of “an alignment of the stars” in cancer treatment and research at Yale.
Pointing to Yale’s recent acquisition of the Bayer HealthCare campus in West Haven, Conn., and its 550,000 square feet of laboratory space (now known as Yale’s “West Campus”), Edelson, professor of dermatology, says that “there may not be any other cancer center in the United States where two such extraordinary facilities—clinical and research—are coming online at the same time, offering a quite special opportunity for programmatic growth and development.”
Edelson says that there was already great momentum building from the recent recruitment of a large number of additional nationally recognized clinical researchers by YCC Deputy Director Edward Chu, M.D., professor of medicine, and the strong basic science and population science research programs, respectively under the direction of YCC Associate Directors Daniel C. DiMaio, M.D., Ph.D., professor of genetics, and Susan T. Mayne, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology and public health.
Most important, he says, is the singularity of purpose of the university, medical school and YNHH to make Yale one of the world’s premier centers for cancer research and cancer care. “We are locked together, with shared goals,” Edelson says. “Yale Cancer Center is positioned to play a leading role in the shaping of the field, through the merging of scientific and clinical advances.”
Smilow has been an active philanthropist since his retirement from Playtex in 1995. He made a generous naming gift to New York University Medical Center, which dedicated the $175 million Joan and Joel Smilow Research Center in 2006. He is a trustee of the medical center, a member of its operating committee and the chair of its board development committee. The Smilows also support research at Johns Hopkins, through the William S. Smilow Center for Marfan Syndrome Research. As well as supporting Yale College, Smilow has been involved as a participant and major donor to a wide variety of causes: three medical institutions in addition to Yale, nyu and Hopkins; the New York Philharmonic, of which he is a director emeritus; and the Boys & Girls Clubs movement. For 36 years, he has been associated with the Madison Square Boys & Girls Club in New York. This organization’s largest clubhouse is named for him. He also served as a vice chair and a member of the executive committee of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, which recognized him in 2003 with its President’s Award. A new Smilow clubhouse under the aegis of the Boys & Girls Club of Lower Naugatuck Valley is now under construction in Ansonia, Conn.
A native of Washington, D.C., Smilow was the presiding officer, from 1999 to 2004, of his Yale College Class of 1954, which in the early 1970s started a fund that grew to $60 million and ultimately totaled $120 million with additional contributions by class members and credits from the university (an all-time Yale record for any class). The class was recognized before the Yale-Harvard game on November 17 for its major contribution of roughly half the total of the Phase I renovation expenses at the Yale Bowl. Smilow also served as a member of both the Yale Development Board and the Board of Governors of the Association of Yale Alumni, and he chaired the Class of 1954’s 50th reunion.
Of the cancer hospital donation, he says, “This opportunity responded to my interests both in medical care and, because of the close involvement of the hospital with Yale School of Medicine, medical research. The third factor was supporting Yale. This confluence of positive things made it something I was delighted to be able to do.”
After his graduation from Yale College, Smilow served in the Navy as a lieutenant JG, primarily serving as a line officer on an Atlantic Fleet destroyer. From 1956 to 1958 he earned an M.B.A. degree with distinction from Harvard Business School, where he was elected a George F. Baker Scholar. He began his business career in 1958 in the marketing department of Procter and Gamble, which he calls “the best graduate school you could ever go to, if you’re interested in marketing or business in general.” In 1965 he moved from P&G to Glendinning Associates, a marketing consulting firm in Westport, Conn. In 1969 he was tapped, at age 36, to become the youngest president in Playtex’s history. In an era when growth in the garment industry was slow, Playtex thrived, demonstrating enormous increases in sales and operating profits under Smilow’s leadership. He led a billion dollar management buyout of the company in 1986 and eventually became the majority owner of Playtex Products Inc.
The Smilows have lived in Fairfield County, Conn., since 1965, when they settled in the coastal town of Westport. Residents now of nearby Southport, Conn., they have three children, one of whom still resides in Westport with three of their four grandchildren. Two grandchildren are students at the Hopkins School in New Haven.
Smilow is chairman of Dinex Group LLC, a company he formed in 1992 with esteemed chef Daniel Boulud. The company owns the celebrated New York restaurants Daniel, Café Boulud, DB Bistro Moderne and Bar Boulud, as well as others in Palm Beach and Las Vegas. Smilow says the same partner/backer spirit that permeates his relationship with Boulud also applies to his involvements in the not-for-profit world: “My goal is to make a difference whenever I can. I hope I can be cerebrally helpful to Yale-New Haven Hospital, as I have been and will continue to be to Yale.”
Smilow says that he also hopes the gift will free up other funds “that can be used for the medical school, to enable Dean Alpern to aggressively recruit more of the world-class scientists that are needed to move research ahead.”
“Great facilities,” he says, “help you attract and motivate outstanding people and make it easier for them to interrelate with one another. That’s where the longer-term payoff comes. The immediate benefits—providing a better place for healing and helping tens of thousands of victims of cancer—are obvious. We can only dream about the day when the building isn’t needed because we’ve found a cure for cancer.”