“Remarkable in Every Way”
Dr. Herbert Pardes, President of BBRF’s Scientific Council, Remembers and Celebrates Steve and Connie Lieber
Steve Lieber was a most special and unique man. He made everyone feel welcome and valued. He was a gentleman. He was warm. Almost to a fault, he spent little time promoting himself. He was an “ideas” person. He was brilliant and generous. There was a quality of sweetness about him that touched all who knew him.
Steve was inseparable from his late wife, Connie, who led BBRF for 20 years. He and Connie were a marvelous combination. They were not only smart, dedicated and gifted. Both were selfless.
The story of my friendship with Steve and Connie goes back to 1986. I was in my second year as head of the psychiatry department at Columbia University, a position I took after serving for about 6 years as director of the National Institute of Mental Health. We decided it would be a good idea to hold public conferences—all-day seminars—on mental illness, and invite the public to attend. We wanted non-professional people to better understand what was going on in the field. It was a way of working actively against stigma. Our biggest hope was that enlightenment would lessen stigma, lead more people to get treatment, and lower the pressure on families.
All of this sounded wonderful in theory, but then the day arrived when we were about to put on our first “mental health symposium,” in Manhattan. It was a rainy Saturday morning. I worried about the size of the crowd we would draw. But 700 people showed up. It was a spectacular success, and marked the beginning of a series of symposia that continues to this day in BBRF’s annual Fall mental health symposium. Those of us who gave talks that first day could feel the strong interest of those who came to hear us. Speakers and audiences seemed to understand that we were doing something important that day.
After the symposium ended, a couple came over to me and said simply: “We’d like to do something for mental illness.” What an understatement that turned out to be. I was delighted—but the importance of that moment wasn’t immediately apparent. What was on my mind that day was the fact that people all over the country who had reason to be interested in psychiatric illness were hiding it. They were scared of it, and they had many reasons why they didn’t want to be associated with it. One rarely met people like Steve and Connie, who had a dedicated priority for psychiatric research. It turned out that these volunteers had a cherished daughter, Janice, with schizophrenia, and both wanted to get involved.
The Liebers intrigued me. I sensed they wanted to do something on a large scale, so I introduced them to the other members of the leadership of BBRF, which was then called NARSAD. They became members quickly. In our first year, when we decided to start giving grants, we had about $50,000. The worry was, if we spent that money, how would we know whether we could do the same thing next year? Not long after that, Steve and Connie started to make their impact on the organization. They strongly supported the idea of funding as many grants as we possibly could to worthy Young Investigators—the best young researchers not only in the U.S. but around the globe who could lead the field forward. The Liebers were always for spending more. In later years, if you told them, “Well, we have the funds to make 170 grants, but on the merits, there are 200 we’d like to fund,” they would say: “Do it.” Implicitly, the idea was they would cover it, and they did. Steve did that repeatedly. Any time we were short, Steve would say, “Don’t worry about it, I’ll pledge.” He gave a pledge and he backed it up.
TRUSTING THE SCIENCE
In addition to the remarkable financial support the Liebers have given, there were countless other ways in which their approach to philanthropy and to life helped make BBRF an unusually effective organization.
One important thing was that Steve and Connie understood that scientific knowledge and competence in this organization resides in the Scientific Council (which I’ve had the honor of chairing from its beginning). The Liebers’ way of acting upon this understanding was to defer to the judgment of the scientific experts when it came to selecting grants to fund. Committees of the Council, composed of world experts in particular fields, choose the best annual applications in grants. There are no politics, and everything is done on a volunteer basis. I do not participate in the choice of any of the grants or the research awards. The Foundation under the Liebers’ leadership raised the money, and the Council has been able, year in and year out for over 30 years, to fund the best research, wherever it is, whoever is doing it. Steve and Connie not only “got” the idea of separating fund-raising from grant-giving, they championed it.
An important principle is that Steve and Connie, along with a number of other major donors, arranged to cover all the basic administrative costs of the Foundation. This enabled NARSAD, and now BBRF, to say to the world: “If you give us a dollar, 100% of that dollar goes for research.” That’s a great message.
The Liebers also backed the idea of streamlining and simplicity. They supported the idea that the Scientific Council would not be burdened by complicated bylaws and rules and regulations. We were empowered to keep adding world-class expertise, in neuroscience, psychiatry, and related fields, to our Council as we went along. From a dozen or so members back in the ‘80s, the Council now has 181 members. It’s depth, breadth, and broad intelligence is another thing that distinguishes BBRF under the leadership of the Liebers.
The Liebers’ approach to grantmaking was characterized by an enlightened open-mindedness. Early in the Foundation’s history, we were approached by various potential benefactors, one of whom, I recall quite well, argued that he’d be a great leader of the organization because he knew exactly what research areas were the most important to fund. That kind of intervention is exactly what Steve and Connie did not do—and not just to please the scientists. They were always accepting of the breadth and diversity of the scientific work for which people were asking support. They didn’t have any favorites. They were just looking for what and who worked and had promise. And no matter what the need was, they would be there, and would push for funding. Connie and Steve epitomized collaboration and non-intrusion. I never heard them complain about a single grant.
RECOGNIZING HIGH ACHIEVEMENT IN RESEARCH
In the late 1980s, Steve Lieber had the terrific insight that those involved in the field of psychiatric research were not getting the kind of recognition in society that they deserved. He asked the Council, “Why isn’t there anything like a Nobel Prize for this research?” That thought led in 1987 to the creation of BBRF’s annual awards programs. We launched the Lieber Prize for Outstanding Schizophrenia Research, setting up a committee to administer it. Over time, the Lieber Prize has become one of the most coveted recognitions in the field. To date, two Lieber Prize winners have gone on to win Nobel Prizes.
Following on that idea, Connie and Steve drew other supporters to the BBRF, enabling the organization to develop additional awards to commend outstanding scientists working on disorders in children, depression and bipolar disease, and basic science, among others.
In 2014, the Liebers created the Pardes Humanitarian Prize in Mental Health to honor those scientists and humanitarians who comprehensively care, teach, investigate, work, and passionately advocate for improving the mental health of society and have had a powerful impact on reducing the pain inflicted by psychiatric illness. The Pardes Prize is presented annually at BBRF’s International Awards dinner, and it is among the great honors of my life to have had this recognition named for me—something I did not seek but upon which Steve Lieber insisted.
These prizes are arguably the most successful and important awards for psychiatric research given anywhere. They carry great prestige. Just as Steve suggested they would. The awards bring well-deserved attention to researchers whose achievements too often go unrecognized. Just as with our grant programs, the awards we give continually help to advance the field, and at the same time bring great credit to the Foundation and its mission.
Creating the idea of an awards program was characteristic of Steve. He was always coming up with new ideas. He was always thinking, “We’re still missing something.” He was very creative. The awards and prizes help us understand why Steve and Connie were so respected by the scientific community. They had the absolute respect of the scientists, and of course vice-versa. The Liebers really knew what they were talking about. They got to know people personally. And their idea that whatever money we had was going to go to grants was as great for the scientists as it has been for the credibility and stature of the Foundation.
The Liebers’ generosity and vision extended to the forming of the Lieber Institute for Brain Development (LIBD) in 2011. The Lieber family and the wonderful and like-minded Maltz family made this possible. LIBD is chaired by Dr. Dan Weinberger, one of the world’s leading schizophrenia researchers. LIBD is an international premier translational research institute devoted exclusively to understanding the developmental origins of serious mental illness. In less than 9 years it has become a leading research enterprise with more than 100 scientists and staff comprising a multidisciplinary intramural faculty that has already discovered promising new treatments for schizophrenia and autism.
A PORTFOLIO OF STUNNING SUCCESSES
Taken together, all that Steve and Connie touched makes for a remarkably impressive series of achievements. I don’t know of anything like it in the world. And it is poignant to think that it all began when two people walked up to me after a meeting. I don’t know if it can be called an accident, but it was certainly a moment of marvelously good fortune. These were people who wanted to help. There are lots of people with wealth, but there aren’t many people with wealth who really know what to do with it, and how to make it work in a difficult field.
Thanks in large part to the vision and commitment of the Liebers, BBRF is one of the most admired charities there is. People in the field know it. Researchers are immensely honored and touched when they are asked to join the Scientific Council. I invite each one personally, and in all the years, only one person has ever turned us down. Those in the field consider receiving a BBRF grant a real honor and an important step toward career success. The prizes given by the Foundation are both coveted and respected.
BBRF began as a small group organized by private citizens. Today it is nothing short of a stunning success. Not long ago, someone came up to me and said, “Who brought this about?” I said, “You see that man over there? That man and his wife.” I cannot say enough about Steve and Connie. Over decades, I have interacted with many, many different people, and many different awards. There are people with all kinds of personalities—but I have yet to meet two people like them. They were not ostentatious. They were not showy. Beginning with, “We’d like to do something,” we can look today with pride upon a Foundation that has funded over $400 million in research and over 5,000 research grants all over the world. And it is a wonderful complement to the NIMH, a great institute, which is also a leader in the battle against mental illness.
A few years ago, Steve lost Connie. Last year, he lost his beloved son, Sam. Yet Steve persisted. He never seemed to miss a beat. Sam, who was so close to Steve, was cherished. His passing was completely unexpected—a great shock. Steve and Connie both were extraordinary. I think back to a day when I went to see Connie when she was gravely ill and in the hospital. She was lying in bed; Steve was sitting nearby. I sat down. And I thought to myself, what does somebody who’s so sick say to you? Well, she didn’t complain about anything. She said to me, “You know, Herb, the doctors and nurses are wonderful here.” Which was typical Steve and Connie. They only saw the good in people. They knew what was good.
The night before Steve passed away, in March, I called him up to see how he was doing; he’d not been feeling well. And he said, “I’m feeling a bit better.” At about seven o’clock the next morning, I got a call, telling me that he’d passed away. There have been a few times in my life when I felt overwhelmed by hurt and loss. This was one of them. I was devastated. It’s a feeling that does not go away. As far as I was concerned, I wanted him to be there for another 100 years. This man was the essence of decency. He was such a gentle, warm, innovative, intelligent man. What a guy! I never heard a word of self-admiration. Just, “How’s everybody else doing? What can we do now?” It was all generated by the drive that produced these great accomplishments.
I loved both of them, Connie and Steve. For me, losing Steve is like losing a brother. That’s who Steve Lieber was, for me and for all who knew him.