John Tishman is well recognized as a master builder and genius in real estate. But at heart, he was a teacher and mentor.
My tutelage began in his office at 666 Fifth Avenue just after my appointment as President of The New School. He taught me about New York, taking me to its neighborhoods, introducing me to its leaders like Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo. He educated me about the challenges of Manhattan real estate in the 1980s, counseling me to buy, not build, to take advantage of the market to expand The New School’s footprint in the Village. So we did: 26 East 14th Street, 55 West 13th Street, 72 Fifth Avenue at bargain prices—no rush to build. He knew we could construct a signature building on this site someday, a facility that would be a campus center with housing and classrooms and studios for all the scattered divisions of The New School. We gather today in the Tishman Auditorium, but we live and work together on the Tishman campus.
History will recognize John as a giant in The New School’s history, a trustee for 35 years, with a vision of its destiny worthy of Alvin Johnson, our founding president.
Most trustees came to The New School board through interests in one of its divisions, the graduate faculty, Parsons, Mannes, Eugene Lang College, Management and Urban Policy. But not John. He cared about the whole institution and grasped the potential of integrating its disparate parts into a university where art and design, urban and environmental policy, social sciences and more invigorated each other. The Tishman Environment and Design Center is emblematic of that vision. Indeed, it was John who led the movement to change our name from The New School for Social Research to The New School University.
And it was John who grasped the importance of technology, pushing for reforms in the Parsons curriculum to advance computer-assisted design, supporting the creation of The New School’s pioneering distance-learning programs, helping design ways to bring all our students together with advanced equipment.
In 1990, I was pleased to confer upon him The New School’s Distinguished Service Award, not for his work in university real estate, but for chairing the Board’s Educational Policy Committee. On that occasion, I said that John “brings passion and excitement to our work, always asking the big questions, always bringing a fresh and original perspective to issues before us. His far-reaching interests and talents have made him a central participant in virtually every important policy matter that this board has faced. John fuses a penetrating analytical power with creative flair, mental toughness with uncommon good judgment, an innate decency with a deeply rooted sense of fairness, bedrock integrity with steadfast loyalty to people and institutions in which he believes.”
John was a trusted mentor and a friend. He taught me about leading a large organization, respecting unions, defending free speech, campus and financial planning but also the art of taking calculated risks. I recall his steady leadership as Chair of the Board when we faced a challenging spring of faculty and student activism in 1997, and his pitch-perfect advice about restraint in the face of protests and sit-ins as well as his laser insight about when the moment came to engage with the dissidents. We emerged from that spring a stronger, more unified New School, reconnected to our founding values of respect for diversity and commitment to community, determined to protect freedom of expression and passionate about working together in the quest for a more just, humane and peaceful world.
More than a mentor, John was a close personal friend. Cynthia and I enjoyed our regular dinners in the country in Bedford and at our house in Fairfield. As I speak, I can visualize our last encounter, walking him up the front steps, his dog TJ greeting him, a smile on his face as I locked eyes with him before entering my car. I felt a sense of peace that reminded me of a reflection by Yale Chaplain William Sloane Coffin, which I read at my father’s funeral: “The one true freedom in life is to come to terms with death, and as early as possible, for death is an event that embraces all our lives. And the only way to have a good death is to lead a good life. Lead a good one, full of curiosity, generosity, and compassion, and there’s no need at the close of the day to rage against the dying of the light. We can go gentle into that good night.”
John lived a good life and now has gone gently into the good night.