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An Endowed Fellowship Made in Memory of a Beloved Husband

When Joan Axelrod remembers her husband, Robert Jay Axelrod, she is proud to recall the way he used his larger-than-life personality to become a well-respected lawyer who championed the causes of his clients. He was a certified civil trial attorney at Levinson Axelrod, a prestigious 75-year-old law firm in New Jersey, and those he assisted received the best representation possible.

"He was always on the side of the underdog and showed such compassion for his clients. He was a wonderful lawyer and is still remembered in the legal community for his amazing skills," she says.

The couple met in Trenton while they were still teenagers and went on to have four children. Joan, who is a Rutgers School of Social Work alum with a MSW (’81) and Ph.D. (’91) recalls how nervous she was to return for her doctoral program as an older student at the age of 50. Robert fully supported her return to school, championing her efforts and even driving her at night for some of the papers she needed to print out at school. "It was truly a team effort," she recalls.

As she defended her dissertation one spring, he was diagnosed with cancer. It was a terrible contrast, the beginning of a new path in her career and the slow ending of her beloved husband’s life. After his death in 2000, she tried to find some way to memorialize him, and struggled to find just the right expression of his life and accomplishments.

Serendipitously, years later, Joan was invited to a Rutgers dinner where she heard a speech by a student from the School of Social Work who was pursuing his degree in the MSW/J.D. program. The School of Social Work, in collaboration with Rutgers School of Law-Camden and School of Law-Newark, has established an accelerated dual-degree program in law and social work through which a student can obtain the JD and MSW degrees. Joan was very impressed by the student’s speech and the powerful potential of graduates with both a social work and law degree.

At the event, Axelrod spoke to a number of SSW faculty and staff, expressing her desire to create something for her husband. Supporting this dual degree seemed like the perfect way to honor her husband’s love of law with her own love of social work, which he had supported and assisted. Together with the school, she created the Joan and Robert Jay Axelrod Endowed Fellowship for the dual degree program.

"I thought this felt like the perfect way to honor his memory," she relates.

Joan has since been able to speak with Kyle Smiddie (SSW ‘11, NLAW’11), a graduate of the program who utilizes the skills and knowledge in his career today as an attorney at the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Seeing how Smiddie uses his dual degrees to assist the mentally disabled, those with special needs in prison, and a host of others in need, reaffirmed her choice to endow this fellowship.

"It has been an incredibly interesting and rewarding experience for me. My husband supported me through all of my professional endeavors, and it is wonderful to now provide support to Rutgers students as they achieve this dual degree."

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