On Sept. 11, 2001, 83 employees of the investment banking firm Sandler O’Neill & Partners were in the company’s office on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center’s south tower.
Sixty-six of those people were murdered by terrorists who smashed a hijacked jet into the tower and caused its collapse. Those 66 men and women, among them, had 76 children.
In the harrowing days after Sept. 11, the leaders at Sandler O’Neill made several crucial decisions. Some of those decisions had to do with resurrecting the firm; others had to do with benefits for the families of murdered employees. One decision particularly fascinates me: The firm helped set up a foundation to pay college tuition for all the children of their murdered employees.
I called the Sandler O’Neill Foundation the other day to talk about those children, and here are some things you should know:
- 54 young men and women have had their college tuition paid so far
- 22 young men and women are still eligible.
- The 54 who are attending or have attended college have gone to every sort of college imaginable — from Stanford to Notre Dame to community colleges and technical institutes.
- Four students have attended Boston College, the alma mater of Welles Crowther, the 24-year-old Sandler O’Neill employee who saved as many as 12 people from death in the south tower before running back upstairs to save more people and never being seen again.
- The youngest child eligible is 13. This youngest child was born six weeks after Sept. 11, 2001. When that child graduates from college, the Sandler O’Neill Foundation will cease to exist, except in memory; but what a resounding memory it will be.
Andy Armstrong was one of the founders of the foundation, in the first days after Sept. 11, though he did not work for Sandler O’Neill. He was a friend of Sandler’s surviving partner, Jimmy Dunne, and he and others of Dunne’s friends and colleagues and competitors helped set up the foundation.
“We were up and running by the end of the first week,” Armstrong says.
“We wanted the families of the lost to know that we would always remember, that the passing years would never sweep this under the rug. People donated many millions of dollars to set up the foundation. We have no salaries and no expenses except fees to stay extant. Yes, I know most of the children who went to college. You wouldn’t believe some of the letters they have written in appreciation. I think they particularly appreciate that we remember their mom or dad this way. Many of them hardly knew their moms and dads.”
I called Jimmy Dunne at Sandler O’Neill to ask him why he instantly did so very much the right thing, the extraordinary thing, when it would have been so easy and normal and understandable to just do enough.
“Because there was a moment in time to stand up,” Dunne says, bluntly.
“Because we believed that what we did would echo for a hundred years in the families of our people, their kids and their grandkids. Because how we conducted ourselves in those first few hours and days would define who we really were and what we were about. Because I knew that if we were not honorable, then we stood for nothing. I remember staring at bin Laden’s smirking face on television, on Sept. 11, and concluding immediately that we would not be intimidated, we would not go out of business, we will come back stronger than ever, and be an example of people who worked and lived with honor. And that meant taking care of our people and their children with respect and reverence. So we did that. We figured what we did and how we did it was our way of fighting idiots like bin Laden.
You want us to fall apart? Then we will survive and flourish. You want to destroy us? Then we will insist even more on acting with honor. That’s what the foundation was for, is for.
We want our defiance and reverence to echo for a century, so that the grandchildren of our people will know we stood for something, and acted honorably when it really counted.”
Source: Brian Doyle Oregon Live
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