A champion of the arts, sciences, and conservation, particularly in his home state of New Jersey, Scott McVay, named “the Money-Man for Inspirations” by the New York Times, cites the stubborn challenges and great joys of a lifetime working in grantmaking and philanthropy.
From his leadership of the Chautauqua Institution, which offers 2,100 events every summer, to his and his wife Hella’s creation of the Poetry Trail in Greenway Meadows in Princeton, McVay’s life has been filled with adventures that have taken him around the world and from pole to pole across the seemingly disparate, yet surprisingly interconnected worlds of science, politics, the humanities, and the arts.
Urged by friends and colleagues to set down his recollections, McVay wrote Surprise Encounters, more than 150 vignettes in the spirit of Boccaccio’s Decameron, chronicling a life lived in service to others. Readers join riveting conversations, light-bulb moments and breakthroughs, and lighthearted but hard-hitting stories about McVay’s eight decades spent as a leader and ambassador of goodwill.
Among the tales McVay recounts are his discovery of the song of the humpback whale; his fight to reduce and stop the killing of whales; and his leadership of two expeditions to study, record, and film the majestic bowhead whale in the Alaskan Arctic.
McVay chronicles his years leading two foundations, Robert Sterling Clark Foundation and Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, as well as twenty years on the board of the W. Alton Jones Foundation, whose bold aims were to maintain biological diversity and reduce the nuclear threat worldwide. Under McVay’s leadership at the Dodge Foundation, he and his team founded one of the most important poetry festivals in the US, one that celebrates the rich and vibrant poetic culture of the United States. McVay was also the first of what is now a cohort of outside trustees at the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation.
Interspersed with McVay’s own poems and dozens of photographs and images, Surprise Encounters is more than just one man’s legacy. Surprise Encounters is an intimate, charming and eminently readable account of a life devoted to philanthropy, nature, education, and the arts.
After graduating from Princeton University in English literature, Scott McVay served for three years as a special agent of the US Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps in Berlin. Returning to his Alma Mater, he became the University’s first recording secretary and later assistant to President Robert F. Goheen, who brought about the admission of women to Princeton in 1969.
McVay’s avocational interest in whales and dolphins led him to work for John C. Lilly, M. D., to write an article for Scientific American describing the peril of great whales and to serve on the US delegation to the International Whaling Commission. With Roger Payne, he discovered and described the six-octave song of the Humpback whale, which became an anthem for whale conservation. McVay led two expeditions to study, record, and film the majestic Bowhead whale in the Alaskan Arctic.
A committed philanthropist, McVay has served or continues to serve on the boards of numerous foundations, including the World Wildlife Fund, the Smithsonian Institution, the W. Alton Jones Foundation, Earth Policy Institute, and The Endocrine Exchange.
He was founding executive director of both the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. He also recently served as president of the Chautauqua Institution in New York State.
McVay’s honors include receipt of the Albert Schweitzer Award from the Animal Welfare Institute, the Joseph Wood Krutch medal from the Humane Society of the United States, the Princeton University Class of 1955 Award, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Award by the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars, the New Jersey Council of the Humanities Citizen of the Year 1998, and an honorary doctorate at Middlebury College.
He lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with his wife, Hella, and has two daughters and three grandchildren.