Maybe it’s my rapidly advancing age (and that of my friends), but I seem to be attending more memorial services lately.
And it may be weird to say, but I don’t hate them.
Not only is it often an opportunity to see old friends and work colleagues that I haven’t seen in years, but I love hearing the stories of the dearly departed.
My criteria for a “good” memorial service is, when it’s over, feeling like I would have liked to have known the person better.
Richard Ravitch died at the end of June at the age of 89. I never met him. I knew his name and some of what he had done, but he was never someone I focused on.
But as a student of government, a labor person and a great admirer of problem “fixers,” I found him to be a enthralling person — the kind of person that someone like Robert Caro should write about.
And like Ravitch, I too love steak, scotch, oysters, gazpacho, old school restaurants in Paris and London, the art of the political fix.
Thanks to the wonderful memorial of a fascinating life by former AFL-CIO Associate General Counsel Damon Silvers, originally posted on Facebook and republished below, I feel like I just attended a memorial service for Dick Ravitch.
And that I would very much have liked to have known him better.
Richard Ravitch 1933-2003
by Damon Silvers
When I was a boy of about 12, living in Richmond, Virginia, and curious about the world, I started reading the New York Times from front to back. In the pages of the newspaper of record, I read about the dazzling life of New York City—its museums and theaters and intellectuals, and its politicians and labor leaders and financiers—larger than life characters good and bad—Bella Abzug and Ed Koch and Victor Gotbaum and Al Shanker, David Rockefeller and Felix Rohatyn and yes even Donald Trump. And woven in and out of these newspaper stories was the name Richard Ravitch–head of the subways, public housing magnate, a man who everyone seemed to think could or would or should be mayor. For me as a teenager, this world I read about in New York City was almost a literary creation– I could no more imagine participating in it than I could actually walk down Swann’s Way or chatting with David Copperfield.
So in 2002, when I worked as Associate General Counsel of the AFL-CIO, and John Sweeney, then the President of the AFL-CIO and a born and bred New Yorker, invited me to come to his office and meet Richard Ravitch, I felt like I had been invited inside a glamorous novel. The labor movement had a big problem– our financial services company ULLICO was on the brink of bankruptcy as a result of a combination of circumstances, including insiders illegally draining cash from the company. And Richard Ravitch was in the business of solving big problems.
That meeting led to me working very closely with Dick Ravitch (and Terry O’Sullivan and Ed Grebow) for years to stabilize ULLICO, protect the working peoples’ capital invested with it, and put it back on the road to the profitability it enjoys today.
And it led to a close and enduring friendship between me and my family and Dick and his family. And it led me to be able to just enjoy the company of an extraordinary person– complicated, simple, generous, loving, forceful, cantankerous– but most of all creative in every sense– Dick just lived to create– organizations, events, pieces of furniture, social dynamics, vegetable gardens, skyscrapers, housing developments, memos, meals.
And he was an American hero and a New York City man in full. And he was loving and lovable. When he died on Sunday at the age of almost 90 and yet somehow undiminished in intellect and spirit and sheer physical vitality it seemed to those who loved him that a warm and glowing light of the kind that fills a safe and comfortable home had just been turned off.
Dick hated racism, and he hated hatred. And he stood up to bullies and thieves.
Dick was a true American hero. He was born into a life of relative privilege– his family owned a sizable construction company. But he devoted is life to trying to serve the American people– to strengthen our republic, and to make peoples’ lives better. As his son Joe Ravitch put it in his funeral, Dick thought he could fix any broken public institution. Dick hated racism, and he hated hatred. And he stood up to bullies and thieves.
Dick knew everyone of consequence in New York City in the second half of the 20th century, but the person he welcomed to his home whom he spoke of with the greatest pride was Bayard Rustin, the trade unionist and civil rights movement strategist– African American, gay, pacifist, socialist. In the 1960’s, Dick worked with Bayard first on the 1963 March on Washington, then to help integrate the New York City construction trades, and finally to seek to unite the civil rights movement and the labor movement at a time of great divisions.
But the thing I remember Dick speaking about with such pride that illustrated who Dick was, was that in New York City in the 1960’s before the Stonewall Uprising, it was very hard to be an openly gay man in New York City, and even more an openly gay African American gay man. Bayard Rustin would often be the target of police harassment, arrest and violence. And whenever he ended up in custody, usually for what they called then a “morals charge,” Dick Ravitch would leave his house in the middle of the night and go down to whatever station house they were holding Rustin for simply being himself, and bring the full weight of Dick’s personal energy and political power to bear on getting Bayard out of jail.
He was an employer all his life, a boss, but he was totally committed to the labor movement as a mainstay of democracy.
In the 1970’s Dick was on the municipal board that set New York City real estate taxes. A then young Donald Trump came to see him and asked for a large tax break for Trump Tower. DIck asked him why he deserved a tax break. Trump said in effect, “because I want one.” Dick said, “we don’t do it that way here– you have to have a reason.” Trump responded, “If you don’t give me a tax break I will call the Governor and have you fired.” Dick said, “feel free to call the Governor, but get out of my office before I throw you out.” If more people had had Dick’s courage and integrity in dealing with the young Trump, we as a nation might not have had to deal with the old Trump.
Dick worked with his friends NY Teachers’ President Al Shanker and AFSCME President Victor Gotbaum to keep New York City from bankruptcy in the 1970’s, in the 1980’s he did the incredible good deed of healing New York City’s subway system after years of underfunding and neglect, and facing down then NY Mayor Ed Koch’s attack on the subway workers. Koch never forgave him, and the workers of the MTA never forgot him. I remember how when Dick and I took a crosstown bus together around 2010, the joy in the smile of the bus driver as he put his hand over the fare box.
Dick was a trusted advisor to EVERY President of the AFL-CIO– from George Meany to Liz Shuler. He was an employer all his life, a boss, but he was totally committed to the labor movement as a mainstay of democracy. Dick was the key person to make the AFL-CIO’s promise to Martin Luther King to help build housing for the urban poor into a reality through the transformation of the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust into not just a housing investment fund, but a housing DEVELOPMENT organization.
He was a New Dealer. Dick shared a number of things in common with my father—they had the same opinion of a number of people—but the thing that just moves my heart is that in the early 1950’s, when they were young men, they both successfully invited Eleanor Roosevelt to do things with them and summoned the courage to chauffeur her around New York City in their high school cars.
Dick didn’t think people with money should get whatever they wanted at the expense of other people. In his 80’s he worked to fix the fiscal problems of Puerto Rico and Detroit as a trusted advisor to judges and politicians—and he was absolutely determined that workers’ pensions and public assets like the great public art of Detroit should not be sacrificed to the bad judgement and greed of those who created these crises.
Dick didn’t think people with money should get whatever they wanted at the expense of other people.
Dick loved steak, scotch, oysters, gazpacho, old school restaurants in Paris and London, the art of the political fix, and anyone who crossed his path who had courage and character.
Women of all ages made him smile. But he truly loved Kathy Doyle, his wife and profound partner. And he would express his admiration for his first wife Diane Ravitch on every occasion I ever heard her name spoken in his presence.
Dick was particularly proud of two episodes in his life. As Dick told the story, when he was a very young man he traveled in Europe. While swimming in the Mediterranean on the French Riviera, he happened upon then Senator John F. Kennedy sunbathing on a raft, sort of like Grace Kelly and Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief. He then managed to charm JFK into inviting him to join JFK and his brothers on a yacht trip to Capri.
And just a few months ago, at the end of his life, his son Joe got married in Hollywood. Joe is a very successful media and sports investment banker, and Diana Ross sang at the wedding. Though he was in a wheelchair, Dick insisted he had danced with Diana Ross.
When I was a young man, I had the good fortune to have a grandfather who grew up in an older America of homesteads and small towns, and who spoke in the cadences of our country as it was in an earlier age. In middle age, Dick Ravitch brought me into the twilight years of another American republic—the nation that won the Second World War, that built skyscrapers and abstract expressionism and bebop, the people who ended segregation and created Medicare—the people who made New York the world’s greatest city, but more than that Dick Ravitch more than anyone I know kept the faith through the years of the core teaching of his idol Franklin Roosevelt—that what America means is freedom—not the freedom to take from other people or to hurt other people—but freedom FROM—freedom from want and fear, and freedom TO–freedom to think independently and to say what you think.
But most of all Dick Ravitch was my friend and my children’s’ friend, and my partner Chi’s friend. My true friend, who cared about me and loved me, as I cared about him and loved him. He had a capacity to feel and express love as great as his capacity to build buildings or yell into the telephone– and that is really saying something.
May my dear dear friend Dick sleep wrapped in the gratitude of the City of New York he did so much to build and the American republic he so faithfully served.