From Fauci to philanthropy: one Georgia family’s story of mentorship and generosity
Anthony Fauci is now a household name.
It happened quickly, as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the country and government officials looked to experts like Dr. Fauci for guidance.
But for Suzanne Peskin’s family, Anthony Fauci was a household name long before we all became living room epidemiologists and socially distanced hermits. That is because Dr. Fauci, affectionately known in Suzanne Peskin’s family as “Tony,” is a family friend and former mentee of Suzanne’s father, Dr. Sheldon “Shelly” Wolff (BS ’52).
A Georgia Genesis
The Peskin family’s story is filled with examples of mentorship and philanthropy going back to Dr. Wolff’s undergraduate days in Athens. Originally from New Jersey, Dr. Wolff found himself in the South when UGA was the only school to offer him a full college scholarship. He came to Athens as a music major and eventually served as drum major of the Redcoat Band. During his time at UGA, Dr. Wolff changed plans, switching his major from art to science and setting his sights on medical school.
Dr. Wolff’s roommate was Phillip Peskin (BBA ’53). He and Philip joined Tau Epsilon Phi (TEP) fraternity and attended activities at the Hillel House, a Jewish student center near campus. Through TEP, Dr. Wolff also met Phillip’s older brother, Herman Peskin (BS ’50). Being far from home, Dr. Wolff enjoyed holidays meals during Jewish high holidays like Yom Kippur at the Peskin family home near Athens.
After college, Dr. Wolff and Phillip went their separate ways. Dr. Wolff attended medical school in Germany before transferring to Vanderbilt University to complete his degree. During his last year of medical school, he married Lila Leff before becoming an internal medicine resident in New York City.
Fauci and Friends
In 1960, Dr. Wolff joined the Laboratory of Clinical Investigation at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Bethesda, Maryland. He later became the clinical director, serving at NIAID for 17 years. He valued research and enjoyed seeing the results of it improve patients’ lives. During that time, Dr. Fauci arrived at NIAID as a clinical associate working under Dr. Wolff. A friendship began between the two men that would last the rest of Dr. Wolff’s life. Dr. Fauci would later say that Dr. Wolff “clearly stands out as the person who made the greatest impact on (his) career.”
Dr. Wolff left NIAID in 1977 to become a professor and chair of the department of medicine at the Tufts University School of Medicine and physician-in-chief at the New England Medical Center Hospital in Boston. Dr. Fauci would go on to enjoy a successful career in public health research, working under six presidents on a variety of disease outbreaks, including HIV/AIDS and now the novel coronavirus.
“Shelly set me on the road to becoming a physician-scientist,” Dr. Fauci said in a 2007 award acceptance speech. “Besides being a generous mentor, he became one of my closest friends and ultimately the best man at my wedding.”
Dr. Wolff and Dr. Fauci became so close that, after her father died, Suzanne Peskin would occasionally call Dr. Fauci for advice on medical decisions. Suzanne knew she could trust that Dr. Fauci’s advice would be nearly identical to what her father would have said. Today, Suzanne believes that her father’s pandemic advice would be as simple as, “listen to Tony Fauci.”
Two Become One
But there is even more to this Bulldog story.
Dr. Wolff was working in Boston in 1981 when Steven Peskin, Herman Peskin’s son, was interviewing for a residency position at the hospital where Dr. Wolff worked. This was far from Steven’s hometown of Augusta. In the spirit of what was done for him during his undergraduate years at UGA, Dr. Wolff invited Steven to a Yom Kippur dinner. That is how Steven met Dr. Wolff’s daughter, Suzanne, who was a senior at Boston University.
Steven ended up matching for an internal medicine program in Boston that year and started dating Suzanne in 1982. They married three years later.
Steven later pursued an MBA on the advice of Dr. Wolff, who believed the degree would be useful as the field of medicine evolved. Steven eventually used that degree to transition to the corporate side of health care. He and Suzanne moved around the country, eventually settling in New Jersey. They have two children, Benjamin and Shelly, the latter named for Dr. Wolff.
The Bulldog Legacy Continues
Shelly Peskin (AB ’19) is single-handedly carrying on her family’s Bulldog legacy, following in the steps of both of her grandfathers. According to her mother, Shelly decided to attend UGA during a trip to the Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club during high school. During the trip, she toured UGA and visited the Hillel House. While there, she felt at home and connected to the place where her grandfathers had bonded as undergraduates.
When Suzanne and Steven attended UGA orientation with Shelly, they were inspired to join the Parents Leadership Council (PLC), a community of highly engaged parents who seek to foster a world-class learning experience for UGA students.
They viewed the PLC as an opportunity to plug in and give back to the university for all it has given their family. They wanted to feel as connected to UGA as they could, especially while their daughter began her journey in Athens. Suzanne and Steven served on the PLC from 2015 until Shelly graduated in 2019.
Everything came full circle for the family in 2017 when they endowed a need-based Georgia Commitment Scholarship in honor of Drs. Wolff and Herman Peskin. The opportunities given to their fathers fueled Steven and Suzanne’s spirit of generosity. Dr. Wolff’s music scholarship and Herman Peskin’s G.I. bill education allowed them to become successful doctors–and mentors for other successful professionals. The family wanted to help similar dreams come true for UGA students in the years to come. The first recipient of the scholarship started at UGA in fall 2018 and is now a rising third-year.
“(Our fathers) were able to achieve enormous success in their lives due to the generous scholarship opportunities that were made available to them,” Suzanne said. “They were both children of hard-working immigrants that came to America with nothing more than a strong work ethic and the desire to give their children the opportunity to be successful. That is our hope for the recipients of the Georgia Commitment Scholarship that is named in their memory.”
Dr. Wolff passed away due to complications from cancer in 1994. Suzanne is proud that her father’s legacy lives on in the people he mentored, trained, taught and treated during his life as a doctor and researcher.
“He left this world a better place,” Suzanne said. “Just far too early.”
You can also make a difference in the life of a student. Become a mentor.
Learn more about the Parents Leadership Council.