In Memory of

Zachary Fisher

[Zachary Fisher]
Sept 26, 1910 - June 4, 1999

Founder & Chairman
Intrepid Sea*Air*Space Museum

US DOD: Statement by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen

    The death of Zachary Fisher, an American patriot, is a great loss to this country and the Department of Defense.

    Mr. Fisher's generosity to service members has been enduring and overwhelming and, for a private citizen, perhaps unequaled. His actions went beyond simple philanthropy - they spoke to the true needs of men and women in uniform.

    Along with his wife, Elizabeth, Mr. Fisher was widely known for standing with military families in their darkest hours. In the midst of tragedies like the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut and the USS Iowa gun turret explosion, the Fishers provided financial assistance to over 340 of these grieving families. They also aided service members and their families who could not afford college tuition by awarding over 700 scholarships.

    One of the Fishers' most enduring legacies is the 26 Fisher Houses they built around the country at major military and Veterans Administration hospitals over the past nine years. These temporary living facilities have been "homes away from home" for tens of thousands of families who could not otherwise afford local lodging while tending loved ones seriously injured or undergoing major medical procedures. Mr. Fisher also has pledged money for military child-care centers and programs for disabled children of military personnel.

    Zachary Fisher shone a light on military history and helped inspire new generations of service members with the Intrepid Museum, the aircraft carrier that was on the verge of being scrapped. This vessel became the foundation of New York City's Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum, which hosts over 500,000 visitors annually.

    Mr. Fisher's deeds stand as symbols of both our nation's support and his love for the military men and women who serve America. For these and other deeds of service, President Clinton in 1998 conferred upon Mr. Fisher the Medal of Freedom, our highest civilian award. We have lost not only a supporter, but a very dear friend. His contributions will live on, and his legacy will be generations of gratitude from America's military community.

Copyright © 1999 M2 Communications, Ltd., All Rights Reserved.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Statement by the President of the United States

[Medal of Freedom]     Hillary and I are saddened to hear of the death of Zachary Fisher. The brave men and women of the United States military have lost a true friend, and America has lost a true patriot.

    Over the years, thousands of military families were touched by Mr. Fisher's generosity: he provided scholarships for college; built "Fisher Houses" near military and VA hospitals so that families could be close to sick or injured loved ones; and established New York's Intrepid Museum so that future generations could be inspired by America's military history.

    Through these good works, Mr. Fisher helped all Americans repay the tremendous debt we owe to the men and women who every day risk their lives to defend our nation and advance the cause of freedom around the world. I was proud to present him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom last fall. Mr. Fisher's memory will continue to inspire all Americans. Hillary and I send our thoughts and prayers to his family and friends.

Copyright © 1999 M2 Communications, Ltd., All Rights Reserved.

Obituaries: June 5, 1999 / Zachary Fisher, Museum Creator

    Developer Zachary Fisher, a Russian immigrant whose lifelong interest in the U.S. military led him to convert the Intrepid, an abandoned aircraft carrier, into an acclaimed naval museum, has died. He was 88.

    Fisher died on Friday, June 4th of complications from pneumonia at New York City's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, his family said.

    After immigrating to New York, Fisher at 16 became a bricklayer. With his brothers, Martin and Larry, Fisher eventually moved into residential and commercial development. "It's a privilege to live in this great country of ours," Fisher said in a recent interview. "They don't owe me a thing. I owe them."

    Survivors include his wife, Elizabeth; his brother, Larry; a sister, Ginny; and his stepson, Bill Crovello. In lieu of flowers, donations to the Intrepid Museum Foundation are requested.

Copyright © 1999, Newsday Inc.

The Man Who Bought an Aircraft Carrier

by John Culhane

    For more than 30 years, she served with valor and distinction. She fought in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, one of the most crucial battles in U.S. Naval history. She and her planes helped sink one of the two largest Japanese battleships, the Musashi, sank or damaged 289 other enemy ships and destroyed more than 600 enemy aircraft. She was believed to have been hit more often by kamikaze pilots than any other U.S. aircraft carrier, and she lost more than 300 young Americans in battle. Later, she served in Vietnam, and recovered Aurora 7 and Gemini 3 space capsules. Finally, when America celebrated its bicentennial, she was at Philadelphia as official host ship of the Navy and the Marine Corps.

    Despite her glorious past, the USS Intrepid was condemned to the scrapheap in 1976 - an obsolete aircraft carrier in a modern, state-of-the-art Navy. Then a quiet patriot named Zachary Fisher came to her rescue. This prominent New York City builder was indignant. "How can there be such a dismal ending for such a great ship?" he asked himself. "How can we cut up our own history for razor blades?"

[Portrait]     Zachary Fisher likes to say that he was born with Naval aviation - in 1910, when the first plane took off from the USS Birmingham. At age 16, he left high school without finishing to help his father and older brothers in the family construction business. He laid bricks, earned his union card and by age 19 was supervising bricklayers.

    Fisher's knee was severely injured in a construction accident, however, and when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, he was rejected by the military, dashing forever his hopes of serving his country in the war. Searching for other ways to be of use, he helped the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers build coastal fortifications.

    The family's business continued to prosper after the war. Fisher and his wife, Elizabeth, became active in work for wounded veterans. They helped finance the Veterans Bedside Network, which afforded hospitalized veterans the chance to write, direct and act in their own shows and broadcast them from one veterans facility to another.

    It was Fisher's growing reputation as a man who remembered while others forgot that led to an invitation to a power breakfast of 20 prominent businessmen on November 30, 1978. Larry Sowinski, an author and Naval-history buff, told them of the impending fate of the Intrepid. He believed that the ship could be transformed into an aerospace and Naval museum for New York, with historical and technological exhibits. Watching grainy black-and-white newsreel footage of the Intrepid in action, Fisher recalled when young men died in infernos of smoke and fire and what their courage had meant for those back home.

    "Can I possibly take on such a big project," he wondered? "I'm 68 years old. Can I see it through? God knows, I want to. I've made a lot of money in this country. I'd like to give some of it back.

    Off the Rolls

    Sowinski took Fisher to Philadelphia, where the Intrepid had been rusting away since the bicentennial. The only way to board her was up a steep, narrow ramp. Fisher's bad leg couldn't make it, so Sowinski, a gentle bear of a man, carried the builder up piggyback.

    Fisher's heart sank as he got on deck. All around him was peeling paint, weather damage, neglect.

    "I am a builder," he said to himself. He threw his shoulders back and imagined the Intrepid, those priceless seven full decks of living history, against the magical skyline of Manhattan. "I will save the Intrepid," he promised himself. There will be no turning back."

    The first problem was to get the ship off Navy rolls. A Navy aircraft carrier had never been transferred to a private foundation before, and Fisher had to show financial capability. His personal fortune, estimated by Forbes magazine as among the nation's top 400, passed that test. But an act of Congress would have to authorize the transfer.

    On February 27, 1979, the Intrepid Museum Foundation was created under Fisher's leadership as a not-for-profit corporation. Congress acted 26 months later to transfer the Intrepid to the foundation.

    Last Voyage

    Another challenge lurked in the building regulations of the City of New York. "The codes treated the Intrepid like a building laid on its side in the water," recalls Fisher with a smile. "That doesn't work." The city didn't, for instance, have a fire rating for a ship's steel bulkhead.

    Beyond private donations from the Fishers and others, the museum was to be financed by the sale of bonds and a loan from the city. But no bond could be written until the foundation had its plans in place. And it couldn't do that until New York's building codes were satisfied.

    Fortunately, then Mayor Edward Koch saw the Intrepid as a centerpiece of the city's planned West Side development. He ordered the restoration of Pier 86 on the Hudson River as the ship's new berth.

    Eventually, New York City agreed to safety modifications so stringent that they serve as guidelines for other vessels used as moored structures. In January 1982 the foundation sold $14.2 million in tax-exempt bonds. A federal loan, obtained through the City of New York, provided an additional $4.5 million.

    That February the Intrepid was towed from Philadelphia to Bethlehem's Hoboken Ship Yard in New Jersey for restoration. The modifications proved so extensive that the ship missed its scheduled early-summer opening and the Fourth of July crowds that Fisher and the foundation had counted on. Worse, there were tremendous cost overruns.

    On June 12, Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher and Larry Sowinski boarded the vessel in Bayonne, N.J., for the last cruise of the USS Intrepid. It took 6-1/2 hours in heavy rain to navigate six nautical miles through the Upper Bay and into the Hudson estuary to the pier in midtown Manhattan, but all three wanted to be part of that final voyage. The Intrepid, Fisher said, had "become my life."

    Now they had seven weeks to install the exhibits if they were going to make an early August opening. There was no electric power when they first got there, so they had to operate on portable generators. Then the exhibit company went on strike. Through it all, Fisher seemed unperturbed, "like the good captain in heavy seas," said Sowinski.

    Opening day for the Intrepid Sea*Air*Space Museum was August 4, 1982. Fisher remembers it this way: "I watched kids in sneakers wandering in awe all over this piece of history. I wondered if any of them would be inspired to do something for their country."

    Several weeks later, he got the perfect example of what a visit to a historic ship can do. George Bush, then Vice President of the United States, flew to New York to dedicate Intrepid Hall, honoring America's wartime role in the Pacific. Bush spoke of his own excitement as a 12- year-old when he had visited a Navy destroyer anchored in the Hudson. That visit had inspired him to join the Navy, Bush said.

    Fighting Lady

    A first-year attendance of one million visitors had been projected for the museum. But only 780,000 came, and that first fiscal year ended with a deficit of $3.5 million. Quietly, Fisher kept paying the bills. He told the New York Times: "This museum will never close."

[Intrepid Museum]     Fisher renegotiated the loan from the city, got help from local businesses and continued to pour his own money into the project. With his help, the museum's revenues were enough to pay operating expenses. But there were lean times. In the fiscal year ending in April 1985, the museum operated at a loss of just over $1 million. And that was on top of $2.7 million in interest payments made by Fisher.

    After attendance picked up in 1985, however, Fisher could mount the flight deck and declare his confidence that the museum would survive. His hopes were fixed on the summer of 1986, when the rededication of the Statue of Liberty would bring millions of visitors to New York. Fortune smiled early, when the Intrepid was designated a National Historic Landmark. She participated in the 100th birthday celebration of the Statue, and the opening of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in the neighborhood also helped.

    But it was the growing number of kids who gave Fisher his greatest pleasure. "She's a symbol," said one 12-year-old visitor. "But she's also the real thing, right?"

    Fisher nodded, and pointed in the direction of the Statue of Liberty. "That's right, son. We're the Fighting Lady of the Harbor - the one that helped keep Miss Liberty's torch lit."

    He watched the children in Pioneers Hall, learning about the first shipboard takeoff from the USS Birmingham. He followed them to Technologies Hall, where they touched a space capsule.

    In Navy Hall, he picked out a teen-age boy and girl watching a wide-screen film he had helped produce about flight operations aboard the nuclear carrier USS Nimitz. The teen-agers glowed with excitement at this dramatic airborne marriage of technology and human dedication. Then they grew sober-faced during a hand-in-hand tour of the Hall of Honor for Congressional Medal of Honor recipients - those Americans recognized for valor, above and beyond the call of duty.

    Dan Rather on CBS News once watched children explore the Intrepid and was so moved that he did a commentary in the ship's voice: "They sent me off with 3000 boys - farm boys and drugstore clerks, now fliers and sailors. Boys don't have majesty, but my boys did."

    "You there, child of today, standing on my deck in your brand-new sneakers, a boy fell there. He manned a five-inch gun, and he fell. He fell where your shadow is. Walk softly there."

    "I am the Intrepid. I survived. History lived within me. He lives within me still."

    Stories of Freedom

    The men who served on the Intrepid also come to visit. Men like Alonzo A. Swann, Jr., of Gary, Ind., now 64, see photographs of action that took place on October 29, 1944.

    The exhibit tells the story of a Japanese kamikaze attack. Swann and 21 others manning the 20-mm. anti-aircraft guns at Gun Tub 10 steadfastly shot off the suicide plane's wing and tail. The pilot released his bomb prematurely into the sea, but the plane kept coming. It flew across the flight deck, and the remaining wing hit Gun Tub 10, splashing the crew with aircraft fuel that flashed into searing flame. Ten died in the attack. Swann himself suffered severe burns and shrapnel wounds, but he lived to face further attacks in 1944 and 1945. After the Japanese surrender, the Intrepid brought back not only its triumphant crew, but many grateful POWs.

    Swann is making plans to tour the ship with his son and grandson. He will show them the plaque that tells of the heroism of Gun Tub 10 and with a tender finger trace his own name and the names of his fallen shipmates.

    The Intrepid is safe now. And Fisher's dream is realized. For years to come, he thought recently, watching the flag rise above the ship's bridge and seeing the Empire State Building shining in the distance, "long after I'm gone, this Fighting Lady will be telling her stories of the meaning of freedom. She'll be telling our children's children of duty, honor, faith. Of hope and courage and pride. Of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The old values that have been at the heart of America from the very beginning.

Copyright © Readers' Digest - April 1990

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