WHEN Fay Vincent was a student at Williams College in the 50’s, he and his roommate were horsing around one day, running in and out of their dorm room; during the horseplay he climbed out on a window ledge and fell and broke his back.
During his recovery he started to feel he would fall behind at school, so in 1957 Mr. Vincent enrolled in several courses at Fairfield University. He had never been to a Catholic school before but he said he was immediately taken with the place and with the Jesuit professors. They were top-notch and they were kind to him at a low point in his life, he said. He never forgot them.
For nearly 30 years, he had little connection with Fairfield. He graduated from Williams and from Yale Law School, he practiced law and began a career in which he ran Columbia Pictures, became executive vice president of Coca-Cola and served as commissioner of major league baseball. While he was commissioner, he was asked to speak at a scholarship event at Fairfield and to consider serving on the university’s board. After he left baseball, Mr. Vincent was elected to the Fairfield board and what he noticed immediately was that the school was underendowed. He decided to change that.
Last month, Mr. Vincent, who lives in Greenwich, donated $2 million to Fairfield University to be used for scholarships. ”Sixty percent of the students there receive some form of financial aid,” he said. He wanted to make certain opportunity is there for as many students as possible.
When he was growing up, Mr. Vincent said, he received scholarships to college as his father had before him. The scholarships changed their lives. ”I feel it’s time for me to give back,” he said.
What he hopes, he said, is that his gift will become cyclical, that students helped by scholarships will go out into the world and do well, as he did, and one day give back to the school. The scholarship is called the Alice Lynch Vincent Scholarship, in honor of his mother who taught school in Waterbury, Southington and New Haven. He says that she and his father, also called Fay Vincent, instilled in him the importance of education. Since then, he’s also establishing a scholarship in his mother’s name at Central Connecticut State University, her alma mater, and the Francis T. Vincent Scholarship at Yale in memory of his father, who was captain of the football and baseball teams.
Education is the great equalizer, Mr. Vincent added, and he wants to help it remain that way. He said he’s impressed with the students at Fairfield and the commitment that its president, the Rev. Aloysius P. Kelley, a Jesuit, has towards liberal arts education, social responsibility and leadership. At Fairfield, more than 70 percent of the student body volunteers in youth and social programs.
Father Kelley said the gift is the largest the university has ever received for scholarships and came at a critical time. ”Never before in Fairfield’s history has the need for financial aid been more pressing or important,” he said. ”For many students today, the key factor in selecting a college, and being able to graduate from it, is the availability of financial aid. If we are to guarantee that the Jesuit system of education remains a reality for succeeding generations of Fairfield University students, increasing our financial aid resources must be our No. 1 priority.”
Mr. Vincent grew up in Waterbury and later in New Haven, in a house where books and sports were equally revered. His father, whose sepia-toned Yale baseball photograph hangs in the hall of Mr. Vincent’s home, worked at the phone company and also officiated at football games. Young Fay went everywhere with his father, to all the games. He recalled the time when he was watching a football game and his father made a controversial call — but the right call, he was quick to point out — and people started to boo. One fan in the stands shouted ”Get the ref.” ”That was my father he was talking about,” Mr. Vincent said. So began his view that you don’t bad-mouth the referee.
In the study of his Greenwich home, a room full of books and mementoes from his days in major league baseball, with shelves full of autographed photographs and baseballs, fire crackled on a recent visit and a finch settled in at a bird feeder outside. Mr. Vincent has a great fondness for his home state, though he has done his share of traveling.
After graduating from law school, Mr. Vincent practiced law in New York and Washington, D.C., and worked at the Securities Exchange Commission. Around that time, Columbia Pictures was in the middle of a scandal and Herbert Allen, a friend of Mr. Vincent’s from Williams, gave him a call and asked him to consider becoming president of the company. ”It was a bolt out of the blue,” he said. ”I was 39 years old and had never run a business before.”
But, he said, ”We made wonderful movies and some bad movies and the stock went up.” During his tenure, Columbia Pictures made ”Tootsie,” ”Gandhi,” ”Kramer v. Kramer” — and ”Ishtar,” one of the biggest movie flops of all time. He chuckled over that one and said he was sure that on his gravestone it would say, ”This guy had something to do with ‘Ishtar.’ ”
Mr. Vincent’s role was on the business side, but he enjoyed the entertainment world and the film industry and is now on the board of Time Warner. ”It’s a wonderful industry,” he said. ”Your mistakes don’t kill anybody. The worst that happens is someone pays $7 for a movie and doesn’t feel they got their money’s worth.”
After running Columbia, he was hired to run the entertainment division of Coca-Cola which, at the time, owned not only Columbia Pictures but also Tri-star Pictures. Around that time, Mr. Vincent became acquainted with A. Bartlett Giamatti, who was president of Yale University. ”I thought he was one of the best people I had ever met. He was funny, smart, a very good friend,” Mr. Vincent said.
The two men in high-powered positions found they shared many interests, especially books and baseball, and they talked about both on frequent visits to Wooster Street in New Haven for pizza. They promised each that one day one would hire the other when the opportunity arose. Then Mr. Giamatti was hired as commissioner of major league baseball and he asked Mr. Vincent to negotiate his contract. Mr. Vincent said the baseball people asked him to come on board with his friend. He did, but five months later, Mr. Giamatti died and Mr. Vincent was soon at the helm. ”Baseball was a rocky road,” he said, noting the labor fight of 1990, the fallout from the Pete Rose gambling scandal and his fights with the Yankees’ principal owner, George Steinbrenner.
Mr. Vincent said he is most proud of his work to increase minority representation in baseball management. But his battles with the union, he said, wore him down and in 1992 he quit and went to England for a few months, to relax and unwind.
Today, Mr. Vincent has his own consulting business and he sits on the boards of several corporations and universities. He said he has no interest in running another major corporation. ”I enjoy having time to myself,” he said, spending chunks of it with his grown children.
Baseball, he said, must ”do a better job getting kids interested.”
And Mr. Vincent continues to be concerned about the opportunities he had as a young man being available to a new generation. ”I love universities, I love libraries, I love books,” he said. ”Education is important to me.”