Trustee Donald Pels dies at 86

by WYNNE PARRY

Nurse Kapoor Pels_GrayscaleDon Pels, a member of the university’s Board of Trustees for more than two decades, passed away October 16 at home in Manhattan.

Mr. Pels, a media executive, joined the board in 1993 and provided crucial support for basic science over many years. A gift he made in 1988 established the Pels Family Center for Biochemistry and Structural Biology and helped fund recruitment of early career faculty in those fields. He later provided funding for an endowed professorship, the Pels Family Professorship. He also served on numerous Board committees and, with his wife Wendy Keys, supported the Tri-Institutional Noon Recitals as well as other initiatives at Rockefeller.

In his highly successful business career, Mr. Pels anticipated the ascendance of mobile phones. The company he led for 20 years, LIN Broadcasting, was mostly an owner of radio and television businesses, but one of its properties, a paging company, acquired licenses for mobile communications in several key markets including New York City. Those licenses became hugely valuable as cellular phone services took off in the early 1990s.

Mr. Pels took a hands-on approach to his philanthropic interests, including at Rockefeller. Although he did not have scientific training he was a quantitative and analytical thinker interested in how science works and in fostering a creative environment within it, says Thomas Sakmar, head of the Laboratory of Chemical Biology and Signal Transduction. Dr. Sakmar worked closely with Mr. Pels when Dr. Sakmar served as acting president in 2002, and even as Mr. Pels made the transition to an emeritus board member he took a leadership role at Rockefeller.

“Don would come to campus and meet with people and have lunch, or invite faculty to his apartment. He was involved in [former president] Paul Nurse’s recruitment, and he not only sponsored faculty and student retreats, he and Wendy would attend them,” Dr. Sakmar says. “You don’t usually see a Rockefeller trustee waiting in the food line at a retreat.”

In addition to his support of Rockefeller, Mr. Pels served on the board of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center and the New York Philharmonic, and he was an early supporter of the High Line.

Mr. Pels is survived by his wife, Wendy; two daughters, Valerie Pels and Juliette Meeus; his son Laurence; sister Betty Schwartz; and four grandchildren.