Stephen Adams

November 7, 1937 – March 14, 2024

Stephen Adams, Entrepreneur and Philanthropist, Dies at 86.

Stephen Adams, an entrepreneur with diverse business interests and a long personal history of giving, passed away peacefully on March 14, 2024 at his home in Connecticut with his wife and best friend Denise and family members at his side.

Born and raised in Minnesota, Adams received his early education from The Blake School in Minneapolis before earning his bachelor’s degree in 1959 from Yale University where he was a member of Skull and Bones, and an MBA degree from The Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1962. Adams was a recipient in 2006 of the Arbuckle Award, the Stanford Graduate School of Business Alumni Association’s most prestigious honor, and the Yale Medal of Honor in 2009, the highest award given by the Yale Alumni Association.

Throughout his professional career, Adams was a businessman and private equity investor. He achieved much of his financial success through his acquisition, control and operation of a variety of ventures in several industries, including soft-drink bottling, community banking, community newspaper publishing, television and radio broadcasting, outdoor advertising, recreational vehicles, camping supplies, farms and vineyards.

He was active for much of his career in the Young Presidents’ Organization, a global leadership community of chief executives. Adams enjoyed fostering the success of promising young entrepreneurs and his generosity of spirit is embodied by his maxim “You are not measured by who you are, but by who you bring along.”

Adams’ desire to encourage and support others was reflected in every aspect of his life. He was a devoted husband and family man and a close friend to many, winning over all he met with his charming, open nature, quick wit and infectious laugh. He was a true gentleman and held himself to the highest standards of character and integrity. Adams was deeply committed to his faith and a life of service and his charitable efforts were matched only by his humility in giving. Adams’ legacy will be measured in lives touched and loving moments shared.

Stephen and Denise shared a passion for winemaking and are the proprietors of vineyards in both the Napa Valley of California and the Bordeaux region of France. It is a point of great pride to the Adams’ that they have earned a place as members of the winemaking community in both regions, and that their vineyards are farmed using bio-dynamic methods.

Stephen was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Cedric and Bernice Adams. His father was a noted Minneapolis Star newspaper columnist and WCCO radio announcer. His mother was a devoted wife and mother who was closely involved in Cedric and Stephen’s lives.

He is survived by his wife of thirty-two years, Denise Rhea Adams. He is also survived by his four sons Stephen (Bonnie), Mark (Tyler), Kent (Mandy), and Scott (Anne), who are his children with his first wife, Ginney Sue Ridgway, who predeceased him. Stephen also was a significant influence in the lives of his stepchildren, Weesa, Forrie and Nick Burke, from his second marriage to Barbara Forster. Adams was predeceased by his brothers, David Adams and Cedric Adams II. Adams is also survived by several nieces and nephews.

The great joy of Adams’ later years were his grandchildren, Adlon, Charles, Julia, Olivia, Lilia, Connor, Ruby, Blake and Elle.

As ardent but discreet philanthropists, Stephen and Denise were supporters of Yale University and the Yale School of Music, the Stanford Graduate School of Business, World Vision and other organizations that benefit the arts, education and humanitarian causes. The Adams’ dedication to the advancement of neurosciences research and care continues in partnership with Yale New Haven Hospital, through the construction and development of the hospital complex known as the Adams Neurosciences Center, and with Yale University, through the development of the Stephen and Denise Adams Center for Parkinson’s Research.

Adams once said of himself, “My wife and I are Christians and the Bible speaks of giving in secret,” and he lived his life that way. As one result, a $100 million donation to the Yale School of Music was given anonymously in 2005 and only came to light years later.

It was not until his mid-50s when he was already a successful businessman and avid wine collector that Adams embarked on a new pursuit: the piano. He explained the decision saying that he had “been a businessman all my life and had fully exercised the left side of my brain” and it was time to exercise the right side. It was this new musical interest that eventually led to his record-setting gift to the Yale School of Music.

For the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Adams endowed three distinguished professorships in marketing, finance and operations. Stephen and Denise also funded development of a building and other facilities at Stanford University for the Veritas Forum, a program at over 200 universities throughout the country that invites shared exploration of ideas between the Christian faith and other beliefs. They also have been longtime supporters of Gordon College and Westmont College, where they endowed professorships, Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts and the Blake School.

Consistent with Adams’ preference, the funeral service will be private. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made in his name to: Adams Neurosciences Center Building Fund or World Vision.

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Published by The New Haven Register on Mar. 15, 2024.

[Editor’s Note: Following news of Steve’s death, classmate Richard Contiguglia wrote a guest column for his local newspaper, The Citizen, about the enormous impact Steve’s generosity had on local musical performances. Richard’s column is included in full, below.]

Guest column
What Steve Adams and his piano series did for Auburn


The announcement of Steve Adams’ death on March 14 is an appropriate time for Auburnians to remember what Steve Adams did for Auburn’s musical environment for upwards of 14 years through the auspices of the Adams Foundation’s Piano Recital Series.

The idea grew out of an encounter that took place at a 45th reunion at Yale, after Auburnians and Yale graduates Richard and John Contiguglia had performed for their classmates. Following their performance Steve, whom Richard and John did not know at the time, came to where John was seated with other classmates for dinner, got on his knees, and told him that the only topic of conversation at his table was his and Richard’s concert. Afterwards, Steve asked the Contiguglias how a businessman like him could help people like us. Out of this encounter grew the idea of the Adams Foundation’s subsidy of piano recitals throughout the U.S. Adams pianists soon began to appear in small venues, from the governor’s mansion in Oregon to a university in Mississippi and, of course, Auburn.

The opportunity for Auburnians to hear a roster of some of America’s most acclaimed pianists in intimate settings — including three first prize winners in international piano competitions in John Nakamatsu (Cliburn Competition), Ian Hobson (Leeds International Piano Competition) and Joseph Kalichstein (Leventritt Piano Competition) — was an experience that most attendees will never forget. It was akin to hearing pianists like Ruth Laredo, Steven Mayer, Simone Dinnerstein, Jeanne Stark, Ann Schein and Ursula Oppens in one’s own living room.

My brother and I had the good fortune to perform two works that were highlights of our career — Liszt’s transcription for two pianos of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion — in our hometown and, consequently, for many of our neighbors, thanks to the Adams Foundation Piano Series in Auburn.

The Adams series in Auburn started at Emerson Auditorium in the former East High School. It found its perfect home, however, in Westminster Presbyterian Church. Pianists referred to the acoustics there as “perfect,” and many people from central New York told us that they came to hear piano recitals as they had never sounded locally. A woman wrote John, “How very fortunate we Auburnians are to have these concerts. I left the church with chills on my body.”

Yes, we mourn the loss of Steve Adams, but we also thank him for what he did for our community.


Auburn natives Richard Contiguglia and his identical twin brother, John Contiguglia, are world acclaimed classical concert pianists who currently reside in New York City. Their professional career spans more than 60 years.