From LAFF’s Archive: The Spirit of 76
By Howard R. Dressner
This article appeared in the Spring 1996 issue of the newsletter and, with eloquent and searing language, portrays the world in which the Ford Foundation found its expanding voice—and still struggles. Howard Dressner died on the last day of 2002 at the age of 83.
It is now three score and sixteen years since I joined the human race. Though I was totally unaware, the world was seething with problems. Not the least of which was how to put this Humpty Dumpty world together again after a war so horrendous that it cried out for a Roman numeral.
As in the 20 centuries and more before 1919, poverty, inhumanity, ethnic and racial hostilities, crime, religious animosities, etc., etc., were everywhere. The Garden of Eden wasn’t even on the map.
Six months after my unheralded birth in the Bronx, my parents whisked me off to York, Pennsylvania (25 miles from the sacred place Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address), where my father served as a foreman of a shirt factory. Sixteen years later, I was on my way to the Big City. The first stop: business school at New York University, where a D in accounting convinced me that I was not cut out for balance sheets and mergers.
By 1940, with college sheepskin in hand, I had become dimly aware that the world around me was seething with problems: Poverty, war in Europe, etc.
In 1941, totally without the courage of Alexander the Great, I found myself in the Army. I would have gladly transferred to dancing class, but Uncle Sam’s draft number didn’t cooperate. Need I tell you again that the world was seething with problems: the debacle at Pearl Harbor, poverty, etc.
Four and a half years later—after marching interminably and carrying my duffel bag through Fort Monroe in Virginia, Hawaii, Wales, London, across the English Channel, France, Belgium, Germany—Major Dressner left Europe to rejoin the gorgeous girl I married in 1942.
By 1946, the two explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki had rocked mother Earth and tens of thousands of soldiers had died, and I became acutely aware that the world was seething with the same problems—and more—as in 1926, 1066, 200 B.C., etc. With an agonizing addition: the barbaric murder of millions of Jewish men, women and children. The chill that enveloped me when I began to comprehend more fully the enormity and bestiality of the crime has never left my body, mind or soul. Inhumanity had reached its zenith.
That chill, and a newly emerging feeling that maybe I could do something to help the wobbly world, led me to Columbia Law School. My newly planned route: law school to public service.
The road ahead took odd turns. In 1948, in order to have a roof over our heads and bagels on the table, I took on teaching public speaking at NYU’s School of Commerce. In 1952, I veered over to university administration. Henry Heald was then president of NYU, the same Heald who was appointed president of the Ford Foundation in 1956. That turned out to be a link to my next adventure.
In 1964, Heald brought me to the Ford Foundation as assistant to Clarence Faust, formerly dean of liberal arts at the University of Chicago, then a vice president of the Foundation. The world was still seething with problems, and the Ford Foundation was energetically attacking most of them.
In 1967…I was appointed by Heald’s successor, McGeorge the Bundy Tiger, to be secretary of the Foundation. I was speechless. For 20 years, I found myself in the midst of all the problems the world was seething with. From population explosions to race relations to debilitating urban areas. Bundy served as president until 1979, pausing momentarily along the way to appoint me vice president and general counsel in 1971.
From 1967 until I retired in 1984, my position brought me to every board meeting, to every executive committee meeting, to countless exchanges with Jay Stratton and Alex Heard, who served as chairmen of the board during the period 1966 through 1984. They were my tutors and inspiration.
Mirabile dictu, I was even present for the inner-sanctum deliberations that resulted in the election of Frank Thomas in June 1979. The board couldn’t locate calm, collected, cool-hand Frank after its deliberations; ergo, I was commissioned by the board to find and inform the president-elect. Thus it was that, a few hours later, I was the first Foundationeer to talk to Frank following his election….
After I retired from the Ford Foundation in 1984, I joined a law firm where I specialized in charitable law. My plan was to savor the experience for a year. I stayed for six….
During that long stretch from 1964 to 1991—and thereafter—the world was, as usual, seething with problems. I began to suspect it would be the same a thousand or two thousand years down the road when, lamentably for me, I would not be around to see the moving picture.
So here I am, now, gratefully one of the world’s ancients and still able to say, Oh, what a wonderful morning.
There are more spaces, vast spaces, than fill-ins in this brief accounting. But you have other things to do than hearing more about the life of a guy who held aloft one of the flags in the Foundation’s passing parade. And so do I.