The UW Odyssey Project proudly announces its successful nomination of 92-year-old Robert “Bob” Auerbach for a 2021 Outstanding Individual Philanthropist award from AFP-Greater Madison for their National Philanthropy Day. At a November 11 ceremony at the Overture Center, Bob humbly accepted this award on behalf of his late wife, Wanda, and all the extraordinary Odyssey students he has met over the past two decades. From Holocaust survivor to internationally acclaimed scientist to Dane County philanthropist, Bob inspires all with his dedication to humanity and social justice.
During the November 11 ceremony, Bob was hailed not only for his transformative support of the UW Odyssey Project over the past 20 years but also for his lifetime of giving both money and time to other charitable organizations.
Bob’s game-changing support of Odyssey helped to propel the program to new heights, encouraged other donors to dream big and empowered low-income families in Dane County to break a cycle of generational poverty, find their voices and achieve their goals.
Along with his late wife, Wanda, who grew up in dire poverty in Appalachia, Bob adopted a spirit of philanthropy committed to giving back to others with love, respect and dedication. At the beginning of their marriage, while still poor, Bob and Wanda decided to “tithe” by donating at least 10% of their income each year to nonprofit organizations.
Bob has supported many charities in Dane County and beyond over his long lifetime, but dearest to his heart are donations and planned gifts to Berea College, where he received a tuition-free college education and met his wife, and the UW Odyssey Project, cofounded by his daughter, Emily, as a way of breaking a cycle of generational poverty here in Madison.
Bob creatively takes any opportunity he sees to help others. For his 90th birthday, he decided to offer $100,000 of his own money as a match for any donations made to the Odyssey Project. This decision was featured in the Wisconsin State Journal in a story called “Passing It On.” For this birthday milestone, over 400 donations came in, raising $150,000. In true Bob fashion, he pledged to match the additional amount over the next few years — and has done so as of 2021.
Piano playing also has a key role in Bob’s contributions as a volunteer. Though he used to play for money in various groups, he began as a widower in 2012 to volunteer his music in over 20 Dane County assisted living, memory care and senior center facilities. In just one typical, non-pandemic year, Bob played 216 piano ‘gigs’ at over 20 venues. He turned over any monetary contributions from his piano playing to the Odyssey Project.
A remarkable philanthropist, Bob finds ways to give with all his heart, with respect for those he gives to, and with recognition of a shared humanity. Black, Latinx, Hmong, Native American and Asian American Odyssey students sometimes refer to him as their “Odyssey dad” and greet him with bear hugs and tearful thanks (as well as requests for songs they want him to play on the piano). See the cover story in On Wisconsin Magazine for a profile of Char Braxton, who recited her poem, “Odyssey Dad,” at his 90th birthday gathering.
When Bob hears of specific instances of suffering — an Odyssey mother unable to afford burial for her daughter, five Odyssey students ironically excluded from taking a College Success course at Madison College because of debts, an Odyssey Junior graduate unable to afford her cap and gown when she received her bachelor’s degree — he springs into action, instantly donating money to cover what’s needed for the sake of justice, equity and humanity.
Wanda used to tell Bob, “We should give charitably until it pinches us a bit. We should try to give as much as we can because others need help so badly, just as we once did.”
Bob did not inherit his money or earn it through corporate profits. He endured near-death in Nazi Germany, traumatic separation from his family and poverty in New York City as an immigrant. He used his tuition-free education from Berea to go forward to advanced degrees at Columbia University. He worked hard as a UW professor whose research on immunology benefited cancer research, and he supplemented his income by playing music. Because he had set aside savings to help support his wife’s long-term care should his death precede hers, he was left after her death with accounts that he knew should be put to good use in the community.
Bob Auerbach stands as a shining example of philanthropy inside and out, through donations and actions, through a jubilant call to others to help him make the world a better place. Bob’s charitable giving over his lifetime has surpassed a million dollars and inspired hundreds of other people to donate also. The impact of his gifts of money, time and love has been profound, helping to ensure the future of Odyssey.