By Thomas Meyer
Zachary Fisher, with his brothers Martin and Larry, built a fortune as a real estate developer in New York City. That fortune has since been devoted to a wide variety of philanthropic initiatives, from supporting the New York Police Department to funding charitable projects in Israel. But the Fisher family, and Zachary himself, are best known for their extensive work on behalf of America’s military service members and veterans.
Zachary Fisher was born in 1910, the son of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. His father was a general contractor, and, at 16 years of age, Zachary dropped out of high school and went to work as a bricklayer. Soon he joined his brothers in forming Fisher Brothers, a company that initially focused on building residential properties around the boroughs of New York. The firm flourished. By the early 1950s, it had expanded to commercial real estate, and within two decades was involved in financing, erecting, and leasing properties throughout the city. Fisher Brothers came to construct, own, or manage upwards of 10 million square feet of New York real estate. The Fishers, proclaimed the New York Times in its obituary for Zachary, rank among “the royal families that over two or three generations have molded the Manhattan real estate market.”
Throughout their lives, Zachary and his wife, Elizabeth, had an unusually deep respect for the men and women of the United States military. “It’s a privilege to live in this great country of ours,” Fisher said in an interview late in life. “I owe them.”
Zachary Fisher never served in the military. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he attempted to enlist in the Marine Corps. He was denied, however, due to a knee injury he sustained while working as a teenager on a construction site. Undeterred, Fisher volunteered his building expertise for civil defense, helping build coastal fortifications along the Atlantic seaboard.
In the late 1970s, Fisher learned that the USS Intrepid, a storied aircraft carrier which had survived several kamikaze attacks, played a critical role in the Pacific during World War II, served in Korea and Vietnam, and even recovered two NASA space capsules—was scheduled to be retired and sold for scrap metal. Fisher hated the idea that the nation would “cut up our own history for razor blades.”
He decided to acquire and rebuild the Intrepid, converting it into a floating museum moored off the banks of Manhattan. It was a monumental undertaking. He put up the first $25 million. Then he shepherded along an act of Congress. (Since this would be the first time an aircraft carrier had ever been sold to a private party, it required a federal statute to complete the transaction.) Next he battled the New York City building commission. (Lacking any precedent for an aircraft-carrier museum, the city inspectors originally treated the Intrepid as a multi-story skyscraper lying on its side.) Five years later, the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum opened—the world’s largest naval museum. “I watched kids in sneakers wandering all over this piece of history,” remarked Fisher on the Intrepid’s opening day. “I wondered if any of them would be inspired to do something for their country.”
Soon after the 1983 bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, the Fishers offered an additional $10,000 to each of the families of fallen service members. Having come to the conclusion that the death benefits given to families of fallen military personnel were too low, the Fishers created the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund. Its mission was to supplement the government’s benefits, in all future cases, with as much as $25,000 cash. The Fishers continued these efforts for more than two decades, closing the direct-payment program only after the federal government significantly increased the monetary benefits offered to the families of service members killed on active duty.
Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher are perhaps best known for launching the Fisher House Foundation. In 1990, Fisher learned about a service woman who had recently received medical treatment at a military hospital. Her husband, unable to afford a hotel, spent the duration of her hospitalization sleeping in his car. Fisher was shocked to learn that the military made no provision for the families of hospitalized veterans and service members—and he decided to do something about it.
With an initial donation of $20 million, Zachary and Elizabeth began building “comfort homes” within walking distance of V.A. and military medical centers. These multi-unit complexes were designed to provide free housing for families of military personnel and veterans who were hospitalized at nearby medical facilities. Fisher limited his mission to building the houses, a task for which he had proven expertise. By the time of Zachary’s death in 2000, the Fisher House Foundation had built 26 houses. The program continues to expand; as of 2012 there were 57 houses in operation and five more in the process of being built.
Fisher was deeply involved in creating new philanthropic ventures of all sorts throughout his life. After his wife developed Alzheimer’s, he joined forces with David Rockefeller, donating $5 million to establish the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research. Based at Rockefeller University, it focuses on supporting research that addresses the cause, care, and cure of Alzheimer’s, as well as providing public education programs on the disease.
After Zachary’s death, the Fisher family continued and expanded his philanthropic mission of supporting the military and veterans. Between 2000 and 2012, the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund provided $120 million in support to wounded service members and their families, first through direct payments to the families of soldiers lost in war, and later through the construction of superlative new medical research and rehabilitation facilities for wounded military personnel. The Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio is focused on treatment of soldiers with amputations, burns, or loss of limb use. The National Intrepid Center of Excellence in Bethesda, Maryland, is focused on the care of brain injuries and psychological health. In 2012, it was announced that several satellite centers will be constructed to bring advanced brain-injury care to other parts of the country.
Also in 2012, the Fisher House program was expanded to Great Britain, where local partners will help build a facility to serve the families of British military patients. There is already a facility at a U.S. Army facility in Germany. There is also a house for grieving families receiving the remains of loved ones at Dover Air Force Base.
As of 2012, the Fisher House Foundation has provided the families of hospitalized service members and veterans with over 4 million days of free lodging. In addition to saving those families a great expense the opportunity to commune with other families in similar situations has proven invaluable for many beneficiaries. The foundation also administers complementary programs sponsored by others—such as Hero Miles, which uses donated frequent flyer credits to pay for loved ones to travel to wounded service members, the Newman’s Own Award, which provides grants for projects to support troops at local military bases, and Scholarships for Military Children.
Zachary Fisher never sought any special recognition for his work on behalf of American service men and women. The work was its own reward. Six months after his death, though, Fisher was honored with a new law that conferred upon him the honorary status of veteran of the Armed Forces of the United States.
"Holidays, birthdays & anniversaries have been celebrated with tears and smiles with people who truly understand what the other person is experiencing."
- Kamryn Jaroszewski