On a blustery day in January, just before the end of winter break, a group of students, faculty, alumni, parents, and trustees gathered to welcome a new arrival to campus. As they stood outside the Upper School entrance, art department head Scot J. Wittman ’86 drew back the veil on a sculpture he had created in honor of Russell A. Divak ’85.
Like so many in our community, Divak made friendships at Rutgers Prep that lasted long after his graduation, and grew even stronger over the years. He was especially close to a group that formed at the school in the early ‘80s known as the “Creative Cards Club.” They played countless rounds of poker together, and also regularly traveled down Easton Avenue to the King James Nursing Home to play cards and chat with the residents there.
Over the following years, though the boys grew up and scattered over the country, they still met annually for a weekend of cards and camaraderie. When Divak passed away in 2012 at age 44, his friends decided to pay him tribute by supporting the school at which they’d formed such a strong bond. Last year, along with Divak’s family, they endowed a prize in his name, to be given annually to that student who writes the best essay on the value of friendship. They also commissioned Wittman, who had known Divak well, to design a commemorative installation.
“They told me they wanted ‘a plaque that would literally come off the wall,’” says Wittman. “I took ‘literally’ literally, and designed a free-standing, three dimensional structure that students could come to and interact with, and thereby interact with each other.” For the material, Wittman chose stainless steel to give a “beaming, impressive image.” His design relied on simplicity, with clean lines and no unnecessary embellishment. Wittman showed his plan to Divak’s friend James Keller, who remarked with a nostalgic smile that it matched Divak’s own style: “James told me that Russell’s desk was always very clean, he had a minimalist aesthetic. I thought that was perfect.”
The final result was an eight-foot tall steel structure featuring a cutout of the Rutgers Prep seal. It is mounted on a two-foot base that will be inscribed with the names of the Divak Friendship Award winners. The base rotates, making it possible for anyone to move the sculpture into a new position. They can maneuver it so the sun’s rays shine through the seal, or perhaps turn it to face the Upper School building, which Divak watched being built during his senior year. Wittman remarks with pleasure that each time he’s walked past the sculpture, it’s been facing in a different direction – a sign that the school community is taking advantage of the experience it offers.
Kuntal Thakkar ’19, the first winner of the Divak Friendship Prize, describes her reaction at the unveiling: “It was breathtaking! I felt like it had always belonged there.” Looking at Wittman’s inspired creation, one can’t help but agree. As the years go by, and the list of prize winners’ names on its base grows longer, the sculpture will weave Russell A. Divak’s legacy of friendship ever more deeply into the fabric of the school.