My American Story: Andrew Tisch

My American Story
by Andrew Tisch

More than 100 years ago, my grandfather, Avraham Tichinsky, stood as a young child in the big room at the new immigrant arrivals hall on Ellis Island. He took the same oath virtually every American immigrant has taken. Avraham and his family had come from Dniepro-Petrovsk in Ukraine sometime around 1896. We thought they came through Odessa on the Crimean Peninsula. According to the family lore, half the family turned left and went to Tashkent in Uzbekistan and the other half, including my great-parents Shlomo (Solomon) and Dinah, my grandfather, his sisters Shirley  and Jean came here. We found out through research that they actually came through Hamburg via ship in 1904.

I imagine they came for the same reason that so many others came to these shores: for the opportunity to live a better life than they could in their place of birth for themselves, for their children and for their future generations.

Although I'm not sure why the family left Ukraine or why they decided to come to the United States, I can surmise that part of it had to do with the fact that they were Jewish and did not feel quite comfortable in what was then part of czarist Russia. One story has it that the Russians were drafting young Jewish men for the Czar's army which was the equivalent of a death sentence. We can only surmise why they came to America because it would have been so much more convenient and safe to get off the train in Warsaw, the greatest Jewish city in the world at the time (and one can only surmise what would have happened to us 30 years later.

I imagine they came for the same reason that so many others came to these shores: for the opportunity to live a better life than they could in their place of birth for themselves, for their children and for their future generations.

We don't know exactly what my grandfather's given name was when he arrived at Ellis Island. The old family lore was that our name was Tischinsky and we were tablemakers because "Tisch" means "table" in Yiddish. But that seems too simple of an explanation. An old newspaper showed a different name, Titenskaya. Whatever our family name was when my great-grandfather left Dniepro-Petrovsk, it became Tichinsky on Ellis Island.

I believe my great grand-father was a tailor specializing in fur. I am told the family first moved to the Bronx to be near our American relatives. Shlomo, now Solomon, set up his tailor business in his home. Dinah was a founder of The Ladies Day Nursery which, in some incarnation, is still in existence and provided early day-care service for working women in the Bronx. They then moved to Brooklyn, before Brooklyn was fashionable again, and my grandfather and his two sisters went to public school where they learned English.

My grandfather went to CCNY, the City College of New York, where he did well academically and was captain of the school's basketball team in 1917/1918. Avraham Tichinsky's nickname was Al. And Tisch was the nickname used for basketball cheers because no one could pronounce his birth name. The cheer "Go Tisch" was certainly catchier than "Go Tichinsky." The nicknames stuck and he carried that name for the rest of his life. Al Tisch married Sayde Brenner whose family was from Poland. They had two sons and he worked hard in the garment business, making boy's cuordoroy knickers in partnership with a man named Handelsman whom he later bought out.

Jean, Abraham and Shirley Tichinsky, 1912. Abraham became Al Tisch in 1918. (Journeys; Mary Skafidas & Andrew Tisch)

Al Tisch never loved the garment business so he took advantage of a great American right, the right to change your mind. He and my grandmother tried their hand at the real estate business by buying a pair of summer camps in Blairstown, New Jersey. They bought the camp with a $5000 loan from Al's father Solomon and ran it for twelve years. It was successful and provided a nice income for the family. Their two sons, Larry and Bob, spent their teenage summers working in the camp.

Among the campers was one of their Brooklyn neighbors, Belle "Bubbles" Silverman, who went on to change her name to Beverly Sills, the great opera star, and stayed a close friend of theirs for her whole life.

Al and Sayde's sons, my father Larry and uncle Bob, fought in the army in World War II. Larry grew up doing the cryptograms in the newspapers and ended up as a cryptographer in the OSS. He was due to be sent over to Myanmar (Burma in those days) but developed hepatitis and finished the war in a hospital in Washington, D.C.

The boys took advantage of another opportunity afforded them in the United States, a good education. Before World War II, my father went to New York University's School of Commerce and graduated at age 19. After the war, he used the GI Bill to get an MBA from Wharton and began his studies at Harvard Law School. However, Larry dropped out of Harvard to join the rest of the family in the hotel business. In 1946, Larry and Bob, along with their parents, leased a hotel in Lakewood, NJ called Laurel-in-the-Pines which they ultimately bought and parlayed into a chain of hotels in New Jersey, New York and Florida. Again, the principal financing came from using the family savings to make the initial investment. Together, the family took advantage of the opportunities allowed them by the American dream and capitalism.

Larry Tisch, Shlomo Tichinsky (nee Titenskaya), Alan Medoff, and Bob Tisch circa 1943. (Journeys; Mary Skafidas & Andrew Tisch)

Through good sense, excellent timing and a positive vision of what can happen in America, they created a business that, today, is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and employs nearly 20,000 people in hotels, insurance, packaging, oil exploration, and natural gas pipelines.

My father, Larry, met my mother, Billie, on a blind date in June of 1948 while he was just getting into the hotel business. They dated for a couple of months before getting engaged and then married on October 31, 1948. Mercifully, I was born 9 months and 2 weeks after they were married. Billie and Larry went on to have three more sons, my brothers, who are my closest friends and business associates to this day.

I grew up as a "hotel brat," moving every year or so to wherever the newest hotel was located and finally to New York at age 10. I have four children, a boy and three girls. My wife, Ann, is a journalist and educator who is working to make the world better by reintroducing single-gender education as a choice into the public education arena. Her efforts have helped thousands of young girls attend college and achieve their own American dreams. My children are all more-than-productive citizens making their own marks in society.

Throughout my life community and philanthropy were key elements reinforced by my parents, my aunt and uncle and my grandparents. I don't know where this spirit came from, but I know it was a key element in the way our family lived. The family was always most important but we never lost sight of the needs of the community. We were taught to be generous and to be participants and, no matter what the consequences, to do the right thing.

Two of the great attributes of this country are the rewards it offers for taking advantage of opportunity and risk...No one pre-determined what we could or could not do or be. Instead, we had the opportunity to “make our own luck.”

In all, we came from many different places. My father's family was from Ukraine and Poland, my mother's family from Lithuania and Germany. My wife Ann's family came from France, the United Kingdom and Hungary. Their countries of origin are just reference points because we are all Americans.

Two of the great attributes of this country are the rewards it offers for taking advantage of opportunity and risk. Throughout our family's experience in America, we have had opportunities presented to us. None of them came without risk but at many of the important junctures, my forefathers and foremothers were able to assess the risks involved in taking advantage of the opportunities. When doors were opened, we were in the fortunate position of choosing many of the right doors to walk through. No one pre-determined what we could or could not do or be. Instead, we had the opportunity to "make our own luck."

My grandfather, Avraham Tichinsky, can count not only his two sons, but 7 grandchildren, 23 great-grandchildren, and 15 great-great grandchildren and growing. All American and all committed to the American dream of peace and opportunity in a better world.

America is filled with Avraham Tichinskys-boys and girls of every ethnic origin from every corner of the world. And I know how hard families worked to become citizens of this great country. And to each of you, I want only to say: "Welcome to the United States."

About the Author

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Andrew H. Tisch is Co-Chairman of the Board and Chairman of the Executive Committee of Loews Corporation. In addition to Loews, he serves on the Boards of Directors of CNA Financial Corporation and Diamond Offshore Drilling, Inc. Mr. Tisch is one of the founders of The No Labels Coalition and Vice Chairman of the Center for U.S. Global Leadership.

He participates in many civic organizations including the Economic Club of New York (Immediate Past Chairman), The Brookings Institution (Trustee), NY Historical Society (Vice Chairman) and the Council on Foreign Relations.  He serves on the boards of the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Foundation, Wildlife Conservation Society and serves as Chairman of the NYC Police Foundation.

He holds a B.S. degree from Cornell University (1971) and a M.B.A. from Harvard University (1977) and is active at Harvard Business School (Dean’s Board of Advisors), Cornell University (Former Vice Chairman of the Board of Trustees and Chairman, Dean’s Board of Advisors, Cornell College of Business), NYU/Tisch School of the Arts (Co-Chair Dean’s Council), The Young Women’s Leadership Network (Co-Founder) and on the Board of Overseers at Weill Cornell Medicine.

He is active in Jewish communal affairs through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (Trustee/Executive Committee), the Jewish Leadership Forum (Founding Chairman) and the Jewish Business Leadership Forum (Founder).

Mr. Tisch is married to journalist and educator Ann Rubenstein and lives in New York.