BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — For one year, the man behind the biggest investment fraud in American history was a student at the University of Alabama.
Bernie Madoff, the disgraced financier who died Wednesday while serving a 150-year prison sentence for defrauding investors out of billions of dollars in a widespread Ponzi scheme, spent his freshman year at UA from 1956 to 1957.
Madoff never publicly spoke about why he decided to go attend Alabama, but according to Jerry Oppenheimer’s “Madoff with the Money,” there were several things about the university that appealed to the New Yorker. For one, Madoff wanted to get away from his home in Queens. For another, he couldn’t get accepted anywhere else. Alabama also had easier entrance requirements and cheaper tuition costs.
“Moreover, he is believed to have received either a swimming scholarship or a partial U.S. Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship, friends recall, with his pledge that he would stay in the cadet corps for all four years of college, and then serve his country on active duty,” Oppenheimer wrote.
While on campus, Madoff pledged Sigma Alpha Mu, a Jewish fraternity. According to researchers at UA’s WS Hoole Special Collections library, it was common for Jewish students from the Northeast to enroll at UA during that time. When Madoff was a student, there were almost 1,000 Jewish students enrolled at Alabama, according to Oppenheimer.
In 2009, several of Madoff’s fraternity brothers, known as “Sammys,” spoke to The New York Times about their memories of him, or lack thereof.
“There isn’t much about Bernie that stands out in my mind,” Martin Brill said. “He was a low-key sort of guy who stayed out of trouble but also lacked any outstanding personality trait.”
“He wasn’t an outstanding athlete or outstanding with girls,” Malcolm Lindy said. “I just don’t remember anything outstanding about him. Nice enough, not a particularly good student as I recall.”
Marty Schrager, Madoff’s roommate at UA, told Oppenheimer that during their hazing initiation for their fraternity, he and Madoff were forced to stay up all night, wear burlap sacks to class and had their heads shaved.
However, Schrager didn’t have much to say about Madoff’s personality.
“There was nothing outstanding about Bernie, that that would lead anyone to believe he was a genius or financial whiz,” Schrager said. “There was nothing sinister about him. There was nothing about him whatsoever.”
Despite Madoff not making much of an impression at Alabama, some fraternity members recall how a “cute little blonde from New York” flew down to Tuscaloosa to spend the weekend with him. According to Oppenheimer, the girl was likely Madoff’s future wife, Ruth, who was 16 years old at the time.
In fact, Oppenheimer suggests that due to wanting to be closer to Ruth and to his home, Madoff eventually left Alabama, transferring to Hofstra University the following year.
However, Schrager and Madoff’s paths would cross against years later. By the late 1970s, Schrager and Madoff shared the same accountant, Michael Bienes. One day, Bienes was telling him about one client who was making a lot of money for different investors.
“But one day I said ‘So, who’s this client of yours?’ And he said ‘It’s Bernard Madoff,” Schrager told Oppenheimer. “I said ‘You mean you’re talking about Bernie Madoff?’ and he said, ‘No, it’s Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities.’ And I said, ‘Tell Bernie that he still owes me a pair of socks from college.’ And Mike laughed at me.”
Schrager eventually invested some money with Madoff’s firm, but unlike many of the disgraced financier’s victims, he got out before it was too late.
“Obviously, Mike made a commission, but I never could understand what was going on,” Schrager said. “I didn’t understand the statements I was getting, so after about a year or so I decided to get out my money.”