Billionaires, you may have noticed, have to “do” something. They don’t seem to be able just to sit there and be billionaires. Donald Trump comes to mind.
In a famous Hollywood movie, the “billionaire” chose mental health as his vehicle to scratch the billionaire itch. Oprah Winfrey opened a school in Africa. Bill Gates puts his leftover money to work improving world health. Jimmy Carter, maybe not a billionaire, but he “belongs” as a former president and until just recently was personally hammering and nailing new homes for the poor.
The unlikeliest-looking and acting billionaire has to be the late Zachary Fisher, who carved his signature in stone and steel across the New York City skyline as a member of the Fisher Brothers construction firm.
Zachary told his friends, “Nobody’s doing patriotism. That’s what I want to do.” A meddling speechwriter would have changed the wording to “military philanthropy.” Zach continued to call it patriotism. He started small. Somebody alerted him to the poor conditions of the playgrounds on the Governors Island military base in New York harbor. Most people assume whatever the military needs is all provided for by Congress. And most people are wrong. Zach knew Congress would take years to fix. It only took him a minute or two to write a check.
In 1989 America invaded Panama to depose a corrupt, drug-running Noriega. Twenty-three Americans were lost in that action. The families of every single fallen American received a check for $25,000. No press conference. No sound bites. No “Take a bow, Mr. Fisher!” Just checks for $25,000 to the family of each fallen American.
Next Fisher stumbled upon the 800-pound gorilla nobody wanted to discuss. Families of seriously injured American servicemen were absolutely free to visit their loved ones in military hospitals, but the families had to travel to unfamiliar cities and look for inexpensive motels a walk or a bus ride from the hospital, literally multiplying the stress of having an injured loved one. That brought about the birth of the “Fisher Houses.”
Fisher Houses offered free or almost free accommodations to those military families right there on the hospital grounds. The internal architecture of Fisher Houses features “flexible walls” so a single relative or a couple can get a suitable room. A few seconds of “wall-juggling” and you can have a room for a family of seven, maybe an infant quartered with mom and five older children in an adjoining room.
It’s easy to read the mail Fisher Houses get from grateful military families. What’s not so easy is reading those letters without clouding up and raining all over yourself!
How’d you like to be Zachary Fisher’s accountant reeling and finally resting from the prodigious amount of money Fisher donated to his “military philanthropy” – and Zach suddenly pipes up and says, “They’re going to scrap the aircraft carrier Intrepid if they can’t raise the money to bring it to New York harbor.” The money was “raised” on the spot. Don’t even ask how many millions. It was the kind of money you thought only liberal legislators gave away, provided, of course, it was other people’s money. The Intrepid is permanently moored there on the New York side of the Hudson River. I want to salute every time I drive by.
Zach invited me and Medal of Honor recipient Paul Bucha to helicopter from New York to Bethesda, Md., to attend the opening of the first Fisher House in 1991. President George H. W. Bush and Barbara and Zachary Fisher and his wife, Elizabeth, were radiant as “military philanthropy” made the big leagues. There would be bigger leagues. There are now 60 Fisher Houses on American military installations.
We lost Zach in 1999. Zach can’t feel the pride in his little act of “patriotism” growing from repairing the playgrounds for military children on Governors Island clear on up to literally bailing out the Obama administration when they couldn’t find the funds to pay the travel expenses of the families whose loved ones were lost in combat to Dover Air Force Base to welcome their caskets home and provide the customary $100,000 to each family. We understand you’re a little short, Barack. Zach will take care of it.
Fisher’s earlier philanthropies included many Jewish charities. You’ll often hear anti-Semites allege that “All Jews care about is money.”
Zach probably wouldn’t fight them on that. He would have just wanted to make sure the right amount of money made it to the right people at the right time.