Upward and Onward
Tufts began construction this summer on Joyce Cummings Center, but for Bill Cummings, A58, H06, J97P, M97P, the project really started more than three decades ago.
The year was 1987, and Cummings, a self-made entrepreneur, successful real estate developer, and new university trustee, envisioned transforming a lot on the Medford-Somerville campus located at the busy intersection of Boston and College avenues.
He proposed that the site—given over to a printing shop, garages, and a cinderblock office building—was better suited for an academic building. “Despite being located on a prominent corner of the university, the site was used for maintenance functions, which are typically situated in a more secluded area of a campus,” he said.
Tufts was intrigued, but for various reasons shelved the idea. Cummings was in for the long game, though, and a few years ago, he reprised his vision. The MBTA was ready to move forward with extending the public transit Green Line through Somerville and into Medford. The terminus was right next to that same lot. A good idea had, in fact, gotten better, said Cummings.
“Although this building idea sat on a shelf for a long time, the MBTA’s Green Line Extension Project presented the perfect opportunity to dust off the plans and capitalize on the proposed changes to the site,” he said. “Over the past few years, the Tufts/Cummings team of architects and designers was kept on its toes as the MBTA’s plans for its station kept evolving. This talented group of professionals returned to the drawing board multiple times and always came up with creative new ideas that aligned with the MBTA’s latest plans for the site. We are delighted with the final drawings and are excited to watch the building take shape.”
The building is made possible thanks to a generous gift made by Bill Cummings, now a trustee emeritus, and Joyce Cummings, H17, J97P, M97P, through their Cummings Foundation. It is the most recent example of how the longtime friends of Tufts have, through their Woburn, Massachusetts-based foundation, strengthened the university. The impact of their giving spans what is now Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and the Cummings Family Chair in Entrepreneurship. Through the foundation’s subsidiary, Cummings Institute for World Justice, the foundation has also funded the Cummings/Hillel Program for Holocaust and Genocide Education for many years.
Joyce Cummings Center at a Glance
“Bill and Joyce have made a truly transformational gift and are remarkable for their generosity to Tufts and to the broader community,” said President Anthony P. Monaco. “We are deeply grateful that they had the persistence and imagination to create this new center. We are fortunate to call them our loyal friends. This legacy will benefit generations of scholars and students to come.”
Cummings became a billionaire through real estate development, but the couple is best known for how they enrich the lives of others—they are among Massachusetts’ most generous philanthropists. Eventually they intend to give all their fortune away. They were the first Massachusetts couple to join the Giving Pledge, founded in 2011 by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett to encourage the world’s most affluent individuals to give away at least half of their assets to charity. Cummings Foundation’s net worth now exceeds $2 billion, and the couple so far has given away more than a quarter of a billion dollars.
“We try to do what we can to do some good in the world,” said Cummings. “Joyce and I have all that we need and want. There is nothing more rewarding to us than knowing that we are advancing worthy organizations; it’s the real measure of our wealth.”
Cummings’ recent memoir, Starting Small and Making It Big, chronicles his journey to becoming a successful entrepreneur and details how he and Joyce have embraced philanthropy. He grew up a “poor kid” in Medford in a two-family house, and “never once imagined becoming a billionaire,” he said. “But I’ve always loved the game of business. As early as 7 years old, I sold bottles of soda pop from my little red wagon.”
He went on to pay his way through Tufts, where he majored in business administration through the economics department. He launched his business career as a sales trainee for Vick Chemical Company and then spent three years with Gorton’s of Gloucester. Soon after he started his own business, a Medford-based fruit punch concentrate company, he and Joyce married in 1966. He recalls meeting Joyce Jutkins by chance while on a sales call to Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, where the University of Alabama graduate was the hospital dietician. He wasted no time asking her out.
“I couldn’t get her out of my mind, so I drove back to Boston to ask her out,” Cummings recalled. “I am so glad I did not let that opportunity pass me by.”
The couple raised four children as Bill built Cummings Properties, a large commercial real estate firm with properties mostly in the northern suburbs of Boston, and they emerged as leading philanthropists. Cummings Foundation, established in 1986, has become one of the largest charitable foundations in New England, awarding more than $260 million in grants to Greater Boston nonprofits alone. “Cummings Properties uses all of its profits to support Cummings Foundation,” he said. “We want to give back to the communities from where we draw our income.”
That generosity, he said, is owed to the values of his and Joyce’s parents, who had lived through the Great Depression. “Work hard. Don’t waste. Seize on good opportunities. Help your neighbors,” he said. “These ideals, combined with a genuine love for building things—companies, structures, teams—proved to be an excellent recipe for achievement in business and philanthropy.”
Cummings said he and Joyce have always wanted to do more for Medford and for Tufts. He’s also wanted to name a building for his wife, who has formed a strong connection with Tufts over the years, connections deepened by being a part of a Jumbo family: their two daughters are both Tufts graduates. Marilyn Cummings Morris graduated from the School of Medicine in 1997, the same year Patricia graduated from the School of Arts and Sciences. Joyce received an honorary degree in 2017.
“As a couple, we would not be able to be philanthropically generous if we had not spent 53 years together, side-by-side in all our endeavors,” said Bill Cummings. “It seemed the right time to honor her love and support.”
As for Tufts, Cummings remains indebted to his alma mater for shaping his career and his life. Courses in writing, business law, and industrial psychology “proved extremely beneficial when I entered the corporate world, and especially when I began buying and creating companies of my own,” he said.
He is particularly gratified that he and Joyce are helping add a new academic building that will transform that irksome lot into a new gateway to the Medford-Somerville campus.
“Tufts is an important part of our lives,” said Cummings, “so we are delighted to give back to the university. We look forward to the day when Joyce Cummings Center will open its doors to Tufts and to the wider world.”
Read more about Joyce Cummings Center on Tufts Now.