Steve Colson is not the type of guy who can just write a big check to a charitable organization and walk away. He is the first to admit he does not know how to “partly get involved” when he latches on to a cause—and he has latched on to many.
That’s why over the years, the 54-year-old businessman and philanthropist has had 13 Somali refugees camping out in his three-bedroom home in Warren, N.J., for more than a month, as well as six Vietnamese family members who stayed even longer. It’s the reason why, over the years, he’s helped numerous families in need to pay for surgeries, college-tuition costs and airfare to see their ailing relatives.
The day before his interview with DiversityInc, Colson accompanied a gifted New Brunswick, N.J., high-school student and his parents to Saint Joseph’s High School in Metuchen and decided to foot the bill for the boy’s private-school education.
“He’s got talent. He’s a good athlete. He’s academically gifted, and for me, New Brunswick High School is not good enough for him,” says Colson, who, along with his brother Doug, owns and operates three lumber and construction-supply companies in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
These are all classic Colson moves. Colson is one of the biggest donors to the Rutgers Future Scholars (RFS), a pre-college program launched by Rutgers University three years ago to help promising low-income, urban students graduate high school and eventually attend Rutgers, free of charge, if they keep up their grades.
“I hate to see somebody that has talent but doesn’t have opportunity,” says Colson. “It’s not fair. I want people to be rewarded for their work and efforts. So, if you’re willing to work but you don’t have opportunities, I want to give you that opportunity.” Since the program’s inception, Colson has donated $300,000.
But beyond his monetary support, Colson has given RFS unstinting hours of his time. He has participated in every RFS event held in New Brunswick and Piscataway, N.J., including workshops, campus tours, basketball games and career and financial-planning seminars.
“It goes back to fairness,” Colson says. “How can I feel good about being successful if these kids in New Brunswick or Plainfield, right down the road, aren’t getting a good education? It takes away from the joy of my success because it doesn’t seem fair.”
In 2010, Colson was selected as a recipient of the Rutgers University Human Dignity Award, which recognizes individuals who have demonstrated extraordinary commitment to the practice of diversity and social justice.
“Mr. Colson is that admirable individual who when confronted with a personal or societal need asks ‘What can I do?’ and then does it,” said Courtney McAnuff, vice president for enrollment management at Rutgers, in nominating him for the award.
Ironically, he has no personal connection to Rutgers. He met Dr. Eve Sachs, the program coordinator for Rutgers Future Scholars, by chance at the Arthur Murray School of Dance in Highland Park, N.J., when they were both taking a ballroom-dancing class. At the time, he was helping Central American immigrants and refugees learn English and American history as part of an amnesty program. He had already taken a Berlitz language course and learned to speak fluent Spanish so he could converse with them more easily. But he couldn’t dance.
“They would invite me to parties but I couldn’t do a certain type of dance they were doing, so I decided to sneak down [to the dance school] to learn it,” he recalls. “That is how I met Eve. That is our connection.”
Colson’s private acts of charity are as long as they are generous. He recently adopted the entire study body at the Plainfield-Union County TEAMS Charter School, arranging field trips and purchasing needed school supplies, including computers for the entire ninth-grade class.
He has provided asylum in his home for refugee families from Vietnam, Iran, Somalia, Bosnia, Romania and Armenia.
Born in Texas, Colson moved with his father, brother and sister to Glen Ridge, N.J., when he was 4 years old, after his parents divorced. The family eventually settled in Summit, N.J., when his father remarried.
Colson grew up in a working-class family. His father built swimming pools for a living, but he was an inventor by nature and spent a lot of time tinkering and creating new-fangled pool filters, cleaners and other accessories. The middle of five children, Colson was acutely sensitive to injustice and the suffering of others.
“If I saw something I didn’t think was fair, it would just kill me,” he says. “I would sit in front of the television when I was a kid watching ‘Bonanza’ and someone would get hurt or something bad would happen to somebody, and I’m sitting there crying and everyone is like, ‘Oh, Steve’s crying again.’ It would break me up.”
Colson attended Clemson University in South Carolina and majored in accounting. He was the president of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity and he chaired the Retardation Assistance Association, which brought children and young adults with disabilities to weekend educational, social and recreational activities on campus.
His eldest brother was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1979. After working briefly in North Carolina after college, Colson eventually returned to New Jersey to help run his father’s swimming-pool business, including a run-down lumber yard he had just acquired. It was the early 1980s and New Jersey’s housing market was poised to boom. Commercial, residential—every structure made money—and so did the Colson family.
Today, the Colson brothers own and operate three companies: Houston Lumber & Supply in Oldwick, N.J., Eastern Engineered Wood Products in Bethlehem, Pa., and International Swimming Pools in New Brunswick, N.J.
Despite his good fortune, however, Colson said he has never been lured by the trappings of wealth. “It’s almost like a drug, excess wealth,” he says. “You have to be careful. If I saw everyone with money be happy, I’d say great. But I actually see the opposite. I just don’t see that money brings joy, whereas everything I’ve done and the opportunities I’ve been able to give people, it just gives me so much joy and it lasts and lasts and it grounds you.”