Two Mothers’ Memories Inspire Endowed Gift for Scholarships

Pictures of two women grace the entryway in the home of alumni couple Craig H. Coller, J.D. ’79 (cum laude) and Leslie F. Coller, B.B.A. ’79—their mothers, both University of Miami alumnae, whose experiences have inspired the Collers to give to UM in a unique and meaningful way.

“For us, it’s a living, breathing opportunity” to keep their mothers’ names alive, says Leslie. 

The Collers recently made an endowed gift to the Division of Student Affairs in honor of Leslie’s mother, Vivian Berger Giller, A.B. ’52, who passed away in 2016. Each year, the Vivian Berger Giller Award will recognize a junior in good academic standing who has made a significant impact on campus through volunteer activities, student organizations, and special projects.

Leslie explains that the award is intended for students who are “doing a lot, but not necessarily being recognized… not getting tapped for Iron Arrow, but doing great things. That’s the student that I want to honor.” 

The gift coincides with the 50th anniversary of the scholarship created in memory of Craig’s mother, Marilyn Gerstein Coller, A.B. ’50. After her untimely passing in 1967, her brother, Richard Gerstein, J.D. ’49, created the Marilyn Gerstein Coller Award to benefit a female senior student in the Panhellenic council. The endowment will also fund this award, which acknowledges the recipient’s contributions to her chapter, the Panhellenic community, and the University.

The award “kind of developed over time” before becoming a scholarship gift, said Craig. At first, it was a gold charm, engraved with the recipient’s name. “Then people weren’t really wearing charms, and it moved to a Tiffany travel alarm clock, which also had to be engraved, and nobody really needed a travel alarm clock. So finally I said, ‘We need to make this something useful for the student, and easier for the University.’” 

After his uncle Richard passed away in 1992, Craig committed to keeping the scholarship award going.  He wrote a check every year, but he also knew the importance of a fund that would provide support in perpetuity, and wanted an endowment to ensure the award’s permanence. 

Different paths led the Collers to the University of Miami. A Baltimore native, Craig attended Washington and Lee University in Virginia as a pre-med major, "until I got to organic chemistry. After taking one semester, I said, ‘Well, maybe I’m not cut out to be a doctor,’” Craig laughs. His uncle, who was one of Miami’s most prominent and illustrious lawyers and six-term State Attorney for Dade County, talked him into law school. 

Under the guidance of his uncle Richard, with whom he was very close, Craig gained valuable insights about legal writing and oration. He became Assistant County Attorney and Chief of the Environmental and Land Use Section, which he calls “the best job on earth.” Craig retired from the county after 36 years and is now in private practice.

Leslie was dissuaded from fashion college by her mother, who was adamant that she attend a four-year university to make her more employable. After a brief turn at another university, Leslie transferred to UM. She thrived here, and became deeply engaged in campus life through her work-study experience.

“Work study was the most amazing opportunity. I worked in student activities, and I got to do everything this university had to offer,” recounts Leslie, who majored in business and minored in graphic design.  Her involvement with special events was good preparation for her career, which has included serving as executive director of the influential Miami’s for Me campaign. “I got a lot of that training when I was here at UM, working on events. We had so much fun,” she recalls.

Now pursuing fashion as her vocation, Leslie has been an independent cabi stylist for almost 10 years.

The Collers want others to know about creating endowments like theirs as permanent tributes and legacies to loved ones. “We’re also hoping that what we’re doing is a little contagious,” Leslie says. 

They especially want to keep their mothers’ memories alive for the next generations of the family, including their daughters Molly, B.S.C. ’12, now a senior membership advisor for Equinox fitness clubs, and Rachel, a senior consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton who is soon to receive her master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins. “Perpetuating our mothers’ names is important to us, and it’s important to our kids,” says Craig. 

His mother did not live to see his children. “She lives through this award, really."

While working in the county attorney’s office, Craig once came across the resume of a recipient of the award in his mother’s name. He beams, “I just thought that was fabulous.”