The life of Charles Adler is a quintessentially American story: triumph over adversity, kindness even in the face of terror, the enduring values of hard work, and education, and service, and giving back.
We are honored to have his name associated with Columbia University in perpetuity.
Born in Dusseldorf in 1927, Charles was the son of Victor and Missy Adler. His father was conscripted into the German army and served in World War I – he was captured by the Russians, and as a prisoner of war, got a job in a Russian candy factory by serendipity: the factory’s machines were of German manufacture, and only Victor could read the accompanying manuals and get the machines working properly. Through these improbable circumstances, he learned a trade that would serve generations of his family.
The Adlers had a flourishing candy business in Germany; though they were Jewish, little Charles attended a local Catholic school. All that changed in 1933, when Hitler came to power – Charles was forced to leave his school; the family’s store was ransacked; and by 1938, the Adlers knew that it was time to escape Germany. They barely did – on the very day that Victor went to the American consulate to secure visas for the family, Nazi stormtroopers showed up at the Adler home. They threw Missy down the stairs, breaking her arm – the kindness of a neighbor, a doctor, was irreplaceable, and the family left on a train for the Netherlands that night. Three weeks later, the S. S. Amsterdam took them to New York Harbor.
The Adlers moved in with an aunt who lived at 150th Street and Broadway, and, full of entrepreneurial spirit in their adopted country, started making candy in the apartment kitchen. Young Charles was tasked with selling the candies door to door in Washington Heights (fifteen cents a bag!), and the family established its footing in America.
Charles then served in the U.S. Navy in World War II – because of his experience in the family’s food and restaurant businesses, he was assigned as a cook, a butcher, and the engineer for the kitchen equipment aboard the USS Vicksburg. After the war he returned home, where his family had bought a candy shop in Washington Heights.
Charles worked there during the days, and took night classes at City College – he was especially interested in food science, and in developing sugar-free candies for the diabetic market. There were few offerings, and they weren’t very good – Charles noted tartly, “The box tasted better than the candy.”
The new line if dietetic candies were fantastically successful – the Adlers had found their niche in the free market, and their company was named for the candy store they bought, Estee. Charles also knew that simply tasting good wasn’t enough, and he proved to be a canny marketer, for instance courting New York Times food writers with free samples, who couldn’t resist the combination of the tasty, sugar-free treats and the compelling story of the immigrant veteran and his burgeoning business. Estee was on its way.
The business quickly outgrew its Washington Heights confines, and eventually expanded and moved its operations to Palisades Park, New Jersey. Charles became a titanic figure in the candy business, and ultimately sold Estee to a German/Swiss cartel, headquartered just 30 minutes from Dusseldorf, his birthplace.
He looked then to other challenges, and became deeply involved with community, political, and philanthropic causes. His generosity to Columbia was especially notable, particularly his establishment of the Adler Professorship in Neurological Sciences, which supports the work of investigators researching neurodegenerative disorders. Elizabeth Bradshaw, PhD is the current (and inaugural) Adler Professor, and holds appointments in the Department of Neurology, The Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain, and the Institute for Genomic Medicine. Her pioneering work focuses on the role the immune system plays in neurodegenerative disorders, like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. (You can learn more about Dr. Bradshaw and her work here.)
Mr. Adler’s generosity was also crucial in Columbia’s recruitment of Philip De Jager, MD, PhD, the director of both our Center for Translational and Computational Neuroimmunology, and our Multiple Sclerosis Center, as well as deputy director of the Taub Institute. Dr. De Jager joined the Columbia faculty from Harvard; he is both a groundbreaking investigator and an effective, empathic clinician, who uses statistical genetics, systems biology and neuro-immunology to diagnose and treat those with neurodegenerative disorders. A physician-scientist of the highest caliber, Dr. De Jager’s clinical work guides his investigations, and his patients’ care is informed by the most recent breakthroughs and discoveries in our laboratories.
You can learn more about Dr. De Jager and his work here.
Mr. Adler passed away in 2019, though his legacy was far from over – his estate made a $10 million gift to the Department of Neurology and the Taub Institute. Mr. Adler understood the importance of planned giving, which allowed him to meet his financial and charitable goals in his lifetime, and providing support for Columbia in the long term. You can learn more about following Charles Adler’s example and making a planned gift to CUIMC here.
Charles Adler is remembered with love and fondness by his family – his three children, Cary, Alan, and Melody; and his four grandchildren. Melody has been particularly instrumental in helping to honor her father’s wishes, and, like him, has proven to be a great friend to all of us at Columbia, and especially to the patients who continue to entrust us with their care.