This is the first of two posts today. This is an article written by my friend, Brian Doyle, to mark this date and appears in The Oregonian of September 11, 2015:
On the morning of September 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 men and women were murdered by terrorists who smashed a hijacked jet into the tower and caused it to collapse. Those 66 men and women, among them, had 76 children.
In the harrowing days after September 11, the surviving partners at Sandler O’Neill made several interesting decisions. Some of those decisions had to do with resurrecting the firm, out of rage and duty and defiance, and maybe somehow quietly a sense of ferocious indefatigable unquenchable prayer. Some others of those decisions had to do with the families of the murdered employees: those employees were paid their full salaries, including bonuses, through the end of the year, even though they were deceased; and their families were kept on full employee benefits for the next ten years, even though the employee of record had been murdered; and the firm helped set up a foundation to pay for college for all the children of their murdered employees.
This last decision fascinates and rivets and moves me, and 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 tuitions paid so far, with 22 young men and women still eligible for free college tuition. The 54 who are attending or have attended college have gone to every shape and sort and stripe of college you can imagine, from Stanford and Princeton and Yale to community colleges and technical institutes to Fordham and Notre Dame and Georgetown. Four students have attended Boston College, the alma mater of Welles Crowther, the 24-year-old Sandler O’Neill employee who saved eleven people from death in the South Tower before running back upstairs to save more people and never being seen again.
The oldest child eligible is now thirty years old and the youngest is thirteen. This youngest child was born six weeks after September 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 is one of the four people who now manage the Foundation; he was one of the founders, in the first days after September 11, though he did not work for or with Sandler O’Neill. He was a friend of Sandler’s surviving partner, Jimmy Dunne, and he and many 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 after the murders,” he says. “We wanted the survivors and their families and the families of the lost to know that we would always remember, that the passing years would never sweep this under the rug. Many dozens of 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 generous 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,” he says, bluntly. “Because we believed at that moment that what happens from now will echo for a hundred years in the families of our people, their kids and their grandkids. Because I knew that 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 this was the critical hour, and if we just got by without being honorable, then we stood for nothing. I remember staring at the television on September 11, and seeing bin Laden’s smirking face, and concluding immediately and irrevocably that we would not be intimidated, we would not go out of business, we would not take our money and run, but that instead we will survive, and come back stronger than ever, and flourish, 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 made two key decisions within those first few hours,” he says. “One, we would always try to think ‘what would bin Laden want?’ and then do completely the opposite. He wanted to murder us, and scare us, and make us run and hide, so we would do the exact opposite, and bring the company back better than ever. And two, we would not only flourish, but we would do so the right way. 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.”
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland – “the finest spiritual magazine in America,” says Annie Dillard, and the author of many books of essays and fiction, notably the novels Mink River, The Plover, and Martin Marten.