Amherst's Biggest Fan

by Justin Long

If you’re searching for Amherst College’s biggest fan, you need look no further than Jake Yamins ’36.

Jake didn’t always know he was going to fall in love with Amherst. In fact, he didn’t even plan on going to college. One day during the summer after he finished high school, Jake ran into one of his teachers and was invited to her house for cookies and milk. (People were always trying to put weight on his 100-pound frame, he recalls.) When asked what he planned on doing at summer’s end, Jake didn’t have an answer. His teacher asked him to sign a piece of paper, and he obliged without knowing what he was signing. One week later, he found out he was enrolled at Amherst College.

At the seasoned age of 95 (with birthday No. 96 coming up in January), Jake is Amherst’s 20th oldest living alumnus. He is still actively involved with his alma mater, and the people at Amherst who know Jake likely outnumber the people who don’t. Most would probably recognize him as the guy who hands out cough drops to coaches, players and staff during basketball games in LeFrak Gymnasium—a tradition that began in the 1980s and has become Jake’s trademark.

Jake wasn’t well known as a student at Amherst. He worked long hours, lived off campus for two years and spent a lot of time in the laboratory as a devout science whiz. He graduated with honors in 1936 and prepared for graduate school, but World War II altered his plans. He went to MIT and for six years was assigned to war projects as a draftee.

After the war Jake was involved in science and research on many levels. He worked as a senior chemist, a director of research at National Dairy Products Corp., the head of fundamental studies in research and development at American Sugar Corp., and for roughly 20 years was the president of Jacob L. Yamins Associates in Freeport, N.Y., where he had his own laboratory for food science research. He was featured in books such as Who’s Who in the East and Leaders in American Science.

Jake with David Wolf '90 after an Amherst victory in 1989.

Throughout his career, Jake had a knack for solving problems. Whenever one of his colleagues was stumped, Jake would head to the library to find a solution. When asked to join his peers in a search for the rich life, Jake recalls telling them, “I don’t care about money. I care about people.”

Wherever Jake was, Amherst was never far from his thoughts. In the 1950s and ’60s he kept in touch with his alma mater by exchanging letters and phone calls with Horace “Bud” Hewlett ’36, who was Amherst’s Director of Public Relations for 30 years. With Bud’s help Jake created and made the first donations to three prizes, including the Athanasios Demetrios Skouras ’36 Prize, which is awarded annually to an Amherst student who has created an outstanding work of art.

Skouras died tragically in World War II. He was the first of Jake’s classmates to pass away. “Athan left us at a very young age—it was tragic. I wanted to do something to honor him, so I contributed $25 to get the fund started. That’s all I could afford.”

Jake continued to give back to the college when he served as class agent in the 1970s. Within three years of accepting the position he had his classmates donating to the college at a 98-percent participation rate. Jake recalls the previous system of asking for donations to be the “wrong way,” so he figured out how to make it work. “I printed new stationary to send to my classmates. Underneath the letterhead it said, ‘It takes only a buck to be counted.’ The Alumni Office didn’t like that, but it worked. Before you knew it, our class had the highest participation rate and was donating the most money.”

Jake also contributed to athletics. In the 1970s, when reporters refused to cover football games at Pratt Field because the press box had no windows to protect against harsh weather, Jake donated $500 to have Plexiglas windows installed. When that press box began to take a turn for the worse, Jake called the town’s safety inspector. As a result, the press box that currently hovers over Pratt Field was built.

Jake has a bottomless treasure chest of stories, but they aren’t all about Amherst. Many simply show how exceptional a person he is. Like when his son, Rob ’72, earned a scholarship in high school, but Jake declined it on Rob’s behalf because another student was in greater need of the money. “We didn’t need the money,” Jake recalls. “We could get by.” Jake also insisted on paying Rob’s Amherst tuition himself rather than applying for financial aid.

Jake’s underlying health is exceptional for 95, but this past April he was suddenly placed in a nursing home. (Jake refers to it as “jail.”) He was quite frail when he was admitted, and his family expected he would have to stay for good. But Jake surprised everyone by working hard on his therapy and exercises, saying he’d “go bonkers if he had to stay any longer around people who were bonkers.”

Jake became mobile again and returned to his Sunderland home July 13. He gets around with a walker and stairlift and receives home care. His memory might not be as sharp as it once was, but he is still as witty and lighthearted as ever. (And considering his age, his memory is quite remarkable.) The sports fan inside of him still calls the football press box on game days, and the scientist inside of him still reads labels on foods and household items.

People didn’t know Jake when he was in college, but they sure know him now. Whether he’s handing out cough drops in the stands at basketball games or reading about his favorite teams from the comfort of home, Jake will always be Amherst’s biggest fan. And judging from the number of people he has affected along the way, Amherst will always be one of his.