Reinharz said he knew about Hassenfeld before meeting her in 1994, when he assumed the presidency of “a university with a lackluster board, among a long list of other problems”—and was told that if he could convince Sylvia, by reputation “a dynamo,” to join the board, many of those problems would begin to be resolved.
So taking a deep breath, he telephoned her.
“Come to see me next week at 4 p.m. at my apartment” in Manhattan, she said.
“I was served the customary Sylvia specialty of a small cup of coffee and two cookies,” Reinharz recalled. “And I made my case.”
He had never met any potential donor, Reinharz said, who was “as straightforward as Sylvia. She did not play coy.”
Who was on the board? she asked. Who will survive and who will be sacrificed? What would my role be?
“She was not going to be a decoration or a symbol of gender diversity,” Reinharz said. “I told her I expected her to make financial contributions and help me build up the rest of the board. Sylvia agreed on the spot with the following brief sentence: ‘I will join the board and I will support you.’ And she was true to her word. So began a most wonderful relationship between one of the most remarkable women of our generation and a grateful new university president.”
Hassenfeld’s many philanthropic passions impressed Reinharz. “Her energy was boundless,” he said. “I was incredulous about the travelling she did.”
Echoes of Alan.
“Yes, she also lived very well,” Reinharz said. “She loved to dress well, eat well, laugh at good jokes, and she could have fun playing bridge with the best of them. On the other hand, she disliked pretentious people who took themselves seriously.”
|Sylvia and Merrill Hassenfeld, 1961.|
He related how Hassenfeld and fellow board member Ann Richards, former governor of Texas, formed a powerful duo in accomplishing his agenda. Before meetings, he said, “I would tell them exactly what I wanted, and they would literally intimidate the board into passing my agenda. Sylvia simply said, ‘Here is what I think. And here’s what needs to be done.’ And Ann Richards would chime in and say immediately afterwards, ‘I totally agree, let’s vote.’ And that was it… No one on the board wanted to cross these two women.”
Laughter filled the temple.
In closing, Reinharz put humor aside for respectful tribute.
“Obviously, Sylvia was a woman of great wealth, who, like many of her generation, could have spent her life in leisure activities, writing the occasional large check and feeling good about it,” he said. “But Sylvia chose a different path. She did not just write checks. She did the work. She got involved in every aspect of the organizations she worked for; talked to everyone, rich and poor; prime ministers as well as the most powerless and vulnerable people in our society. She traveled tirelessly throughout the world trying to improve the lives of less fortunate individuals and communities.”
He could have been describing her son.
“She teaches us that with privilege come obligations and opportunities,” Reinharz said. “Not many people can say that they have changed the world for the better. I believe Sylvia is one of those who truly has. We will all miss her very much. May her memory be a blessing.”