Skip to Main Content

Brotherly encouragement spurs gift to support students

Joel and Rob in 1946

“He always gave the impression of being a little bit of a flake, but he was a flake with a lot of depth,” Joel Kavet says of his brother, Robert.

The brothers Kavet speak of each other with a blend of deprecation, love and always humor. Robert never attended Yale. Yet both their names grace the Joel Kavet, MPH ’67, ScD and Robert Kavet, MS, ScD Scholarship Fund at YSPH. When Joel funded the scholarship, he wanted to pay tribute to his brother’s encouragement along his, sometimes unlikely, academic journey.

The brothers grew up in Brooklyn, in a family that placed a high priority on learning. Their father had a master’s degree and spoke several languages. The boys attended a Yeshiva, where graduates generally went on to become lawyers, rabbis or merchants. Though the school had high standards, it was light on preparation in the sciences. Nevertheless, Joel went on to pursue his undergraduate degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

“I didn’t really graduate so much as I escaped,” he remembers.

A stint in the Navy introduced him to the world of hospitals. “It’s a 24/7 environment of people taking responsibility to deal with issues of which they may not be fully informed ... It’s vibrancy and excellence,” he says. He wanted to pursue an education in hospital administration, which brought him to the office of YSPH Professor John D. Thompson, RN, MS, who looked askance at Joel’s Rensselaer grades. “John had some wonderful two-syllable words to describe the kind of mess that it was,” Joel recalls. But there were no Fs, the four-year trend was up, and Thompson was inclined to give a fellow Naval veteran a chance. He hired Joel as a research assistant, a chance to prove himself before enrolling as a student. Prove himself he did, going on to matriculate at the school. Thompson became an invaluable mentor, who encouraged Joel to seek a doctorate at another institution where he’d be exposed to different ways of thinking. “You’ve already seen what we have here,” Thompson told him.

Joel chose Harvard, where for a while his studies overlapped Robert’s. An engineer working for a weapons maker, Robert had become disillusioned with the work because of the Vietnam War and was seeking a career change in public health. Robert remembers that at the outset Joel “did not have the greatest thesis advisor,” a stark contrast to the mentoring he’d received from Thompson. Joel considered quitting the program, but then his brother gave him a pep talk.

“If it wasn’t hard, you wouldn’t be learning anything,” Joel recalls his brother telling him.

Joel and Rob Kavet

That convinced him to stick it out. He found a better mentor and completed his doctorate -- a decision he quickly realized was the right one.

“What better gift could you give a mother from the old country (Ukraine) than to see two of her sons marching in the graduation parade at Harvard?” he asks.

The family passion for education is reflected in the scholarship Joel established. When Joel attended Yale, he boarded with the family of YSPH faculty member Kathleen Howe and her husband, Sam. “I lived in the house, ate with family and they allowed me to do nothing,” Joel remembers. Whenever he’d try to chip in, Sam would say the same thing: “Look kid, right now I’ve got it, and you don’t. Someday you’ll have it, and some other kid won’t. You’ll take care of that kid, and we’ll be even.”

Whenever Joel would buy a graduate student lunch, he’d say, “Sam is paying for this one.”

The gift comes at a fortuitous time. An anonymous donor is matching scholarship endowments, making it easier for alumni to create these lasting gifts. Yale University is also contributing funds to the YSPH endowment equal to any planned gifts the school receives through a $50 Million Challenge. This will create capacity for the next dean to invest in the school’s future.

That aligns well with both brothers’ love of public health and of learning. While Robert can easily summon colorful stories about his brother, he is hazy on the conversation that convinced Joel to stay at Harvard: “I guess I said something brotherly.” Yet he is delighted that his name appears on the YSPH scholarship. “You need to promote a new generation of people who are going to carry the torch and push the thresholds of knowledge,” he says.