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Varis was born Agnes Koulouvaris to Dionysis and Demetroula Koulouvaris on January 11, 1930, in Lowell, Massachusetts. She was the youngest of eight children. Her parents, both Greek immigrants, moved the family to the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, New York, where her father, who worked as an ice cream vendor, died when she was 14. Her mother could neither read nor write and was left to raise the family alone on the income she earned sewing buttons in a garment factory. Varis was the only child of eight to attend college. She earned her degree in Chemistry and English from Brooklyn College. After attending New York University's Stern School of Business, she shortened her surname to "Varis" in preparation for entering the business world.
Dr. Agnes Varis was married to the late Karl Leichtman, a man of an equally enormous generosity and love for the arts.
In 1970, aged 40, she started Agvar Chemicals and co-founded Marsam Pharmaceuticals in 1985. She became the founder and President of Aegis Pharmaceuticals in 1992. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s Dr. Varis maintained a close relationship with Hillary Clinton and President Bill Clinton. Dr. Varis was appointed by President Barack Obama to the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, which encompassed 26 leading citizens from the private sector with an interest in and commitment to the humanities and the arts.
Its members also included twelve federal members whose agencies had cultural programs, such as the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the U.S. Department of Education, the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, the National Gallery of Art and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Dr. Varis also advocated for prescription drug reform. She helped draft the Hatch-Waxman Act of 1984, intended to ease generics’ passage to market. She also helped draft the Greater Access to Affordable Pharmaceuticals Act, which was co-sponsored by Senators Charles Schumer (NY) and John McCain (AZ) and passed as part of the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003. Dr. Varis helped found the Generic Pharmaceutical Association, an industry group, in 2000, and chaired the organization.
In 2004 Dr. Varis became involved with the Jazz Foundation of America. Her work with the Jazz Foundation included providing funding and creating employment opportunities for America's elderly jazz and blues musicians.
Through her work in response to Hurricane Katrina, in 2006 the Jazz Foundation of America established the Agnes Varis/Musicians in the Schools Program, first reaching out to displaced New Orleans musicians and subsequently employing more than 1,000 musicians in eight states, including some 120 elderly jazz and blues musicians performing free concerts in New York City public schools, hospitals and nursing homes. There is a street named the Dr. Agnes Varis Way, dedicated to Dr. Varis in 2011, due to her generous efforts in New Orleans. In 2009, then Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana Mitch Landrieu presented Varis with the coveted "Saint of the Century" Award at the Jazz Foundation of America's annual benefit concert, A Great Night in Harlem, at the Apollo Theater.
As managing director for the New York Metropolitan Opera's Board of Directors, Varis implemented the Rush Ticket Program funded by a $2 million contribution from her and her husband. The program enabled operagoers, senior citizens in particular, to purchase tickets at an 80 percent discount two hours prior to the show.
She was a resident of New York City and active in Democratic political campaigns. In 2004, she was the 24th largest individual contributor to 527 groups, donating more than $2,000,000 to pro-Democrat groups.
Dr. Varis made numerous contributions to Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, sponsoring graduate research fellowships as well as facilities throughout the school, among them the Agnes Varis Lecture Hall, the Agnes Varis Campus Center and Auditorium, and the Varis Cat Ward in the Foster Hospital for Small Animals. She also donated the Agnes Varis University Chair in Science and Society, dedicated to exploring scientific discovery and its impact on humankind. Varis maintained that one of her main reasons for making her name visible was to inspire other women, showing them that they, too, could achieve great success in their endeavors. In 2003, Tufts president Larry Bacow awarded her an honorary Doctorate of Public Service for her commitment to active citizenship. Varis later served as a member of the veterinary school's Board of Overseers and the university's Board of Trustees from 2004 until 2009.
In 2009, Dr. Agnes Varis also started the Zeus Varis Fund, a fund used to help treat animals with diseases for those who cannot afford it. The Zeus Varis Fund is established by Frankie's Friends, and operates in Manhattan NYC.
After Dr. Varis was diagnosed with cancer and met other patients in the radiation therapy waiting room, she decided to do something special for them. She worked with her Oncologist, Dr. Gabriel Sara at Roosevelt Hospital in NYC and funded Cleopatra's Touch. It consists of providing women with cancer the opportunity to be beautified by specialists during the course of their therapy. It includes a haircut, make up, nail polishing, and a massage—a true Agnes touch.
The lower portion of Central Park is dedicated to Dr. Varis. Embedded there is a plaque, with a Pericles quote, "What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone, but what is woven into the lives of others." This quote fits perfectly with Dr. Varis' generous nature, and how she positively affected those close to her, as well as positivity in her philanthropies.
- Gurewitsch, Matthew (2006-10-12). "You Have Her to Thank For Cheap, Good Seats at the Met". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2012-08-01.
- Fox, Margalit (2011-08-02). "Agnes Varis, Founder of Drug Company, Dies at 81". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-09-10.
- Archive. "President Obama Appoints Members to Serve on the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities | President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities". Pcah.gov. Archived from the original on 9 July 2011. Retrieved 2011-08-03.
- "Jazz Foundation of America | Agnes Varis Jazz in the Schools Program". Jazzfoundation.org. 2001-09-11. Retrieved 2011-08-03.
- jazzjournalists.org. Oct-05-09. URL:http://www.jazzjournalists.org/agnes-varis. Accessed: Oct-05-09. (Archived by Jazz Journalists Association at http://www.jazzjournalists.org/agnes-varis)
- Hoelterhoff, Manuela (2011-08-02). "Agnes Varis, Pharma Mogul, Music Champion, Pet Patron Dies at 81". Bloomberg. Retrieved 2012-09-10.
- "Remembering Dr. Agnes Varis". tufts.edu. 2011-08-18. Retrieved 2012-09-10.
- Fox, Margalit (2011-08-02). "Agnes Varis, Founder of Drug Company, Dies at 81". New York Times. Retrieved 2011-08-03.
- Hoelterhoff, Manuela (2011-03-01). "Pharma Mogul Turned Opera Philanthropist Dies After Career ’Doing Good’". Bloomberg. Retrieved 2011-08-03.