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The Fisher Family Gives Back to Those Who Serve

The Fisher Family Foundations

The “Greatest Generation” has many memorable stories, some well-known and some untold. A story unknown to many is that of the USS Intrepid, a veteran aircraft carrier that saw service from World War II to Vietnam. She ran the entire gamut of roles from attack platform to sub-seeker, from Leyte Gulf to Vietnam; and she served with power and pride – an awesome warship that will forever be memorialized. She rests in a place of honor for all to visit. Anyone who visits Lower Manhattan these days would be hard-pressed to miss the amazing facility that is the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. One of the most extensive collections of aircraft and military hardware anywhere in the world, the Intrepid facility has had millions of visitors over the years. Less obvious is what it has taken to create and maintain this impressive collection, along with a number of other projects that represent the life’s work of Zachary Fisher and the Fisher family.


Who Are the Fishers?

Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum

Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum during Operation Sail 1992, celebrating the 500th anniversary of Columbus landing in America. Photo courtesy Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum

Zachary Fisher, one of seven brothers and sisters and a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., had a lifelong passion for the armed services. He often referred to men and women in uniform as “our nation’s greatest treasure.” He spent his life not only honoring them, but using his skill as a builder – and his concern as a humanitarian – to ensure their sacrifices on the battlefield did not take a larger toll once they returned home.

Fisher’s career in real estate started when he went to work as a bricklayer at the age of 16. He later joined with his brothers, Martin and Larry, to form what would become Fisher Brothers, one of the country’s most successful residential and commercial real estate developers, which today owns and manages 5 million square feet of office space.

Inspired to join the military – as so many young men were – by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Fisher was prohibited from enlisting due to a severe leg injury he had sustained while working on a construction site. Not to be deterred, he set about finding an alternative route to making an impact in the war effort. Drawing on his construction expertise, he assisted in building shoreline battlements and fortifications, among other projects.

Fisher’s wife, Elizabeth, was equally committed to the troops. Before they met, Elizabeth volunteered her time with the USO during World War II, performing as a member of the famous Ziegfeld Follies and visiting wounded military personnel at their bedsides. They married in 1943.

Together, their concern and philanthropy to benefit American troops seemed to know no bounds. Long before the formal creation of the multiple foundations that would be their legacy, the Fishers wrote anonymous checks to the families of military members killed in action at a time when the federal death benefits for fallen troops was extraordinarily low. It was this dedication to honoring our troops that would eventually grow into the Intrepid Family of Foundations.


The Intrepid Story

A key part of the Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher story involves the legendary USS Intrepid (CV/CVA/CVS 11).

While in service, the Intrepid was known to those who served aboard as “the Fighting I.” The Japanese called her “the Ghost Ship” because she seemed to keep coming back from the dead: Five kamikaze attacks during World War II failed to sink her.

One of 24 Essex-class aircraft carriers, she was built in just over 14 months and commissioned in August 1943. In her storied battle career, Intrepid contributed to several pivotal sea battles in the Pacific theater of operations, most notably the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which was a crippling confrontation for the Japanese navy and sealed the liberation of the Philippines.

Zachary Fisher Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum

Zachary Fisher often visited the museum and met with visitors. Photo courtesy Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum

Decommissioned shortly after the end of World War II, Intrepid was updated, modernized, and returned to service in the early 1950s as an attack carrier (CVA) and then as an anti-submarine carrier (CVS). In this second life, she served in the North Atlantic and three tours in Vietnam.

Her noteworthy successes as the first U.S. aircraft carrier to launch jet aircraft from steam catapults led to her call to serve as a recovery vessel for the groundbreaking Mercury and Gemini space missions, where she recovered astronauts Scott Carpenter, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, and John Young from their splashdowns in the Pacific.

But in 1974, the Navy decommissioned her for the last time, and Intrepid sat waiting for the day she would be sent to the scrap yard.

The Fishers were inspired by Intrepid and the valor and sacrifice of the men who served aboard her decks. They joined a successful effort to save Intrepid from scrapping, and in 1978 created the Intrepid Museum Foundation, raising the money to bring her to New York’s Pier 86 on the West Side of Manhattan.

Overhauled once more, Intrepid was transformed into a museum that would celebrate her and her gallant crew’s service to the nation and inspire future generations to follow that path. In 1982, the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum welcomed its first visitors, and held the title of the world’s largest naval museum. Today, the Intrepid Museum is a designated historic landmark and has welcomed more than 12 million visitors. Its motto and mission are to “Honor, Educate, and Inspire.”


Continuing Fisher Philanthropy

The creation and opening of the Intrepid Museum was only the start of the Fisher family’s formal philanthropic endeavors.

The same year the museum opened, 1982, Fisher established the Zachary and Elizabeth M. Fisher Armed Services Foundation. He made substantial contributions to the families of victims of the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983, and to the families of hundreds of other service members lost in the performance of their duty over the next 15 years.

Fisher truly understood the role of service to the nation and made similar donations to the families of New York City firefighters who lost their lives in the line of duty. The Fishers’ Armed Services Foundation also provides scholarship funds to active and former service members and their families.

But this was only the beginning.


Understanding What Is Needed

The spirit of the Fisher family is confirmed in a story that tells how another Fisher philanthropic endeavor, the Fisher House Foundation, was conceived.

As the story is told, some time in the late 1980s, the wife of the Chief of Naval Operations was returning to her car one evening after visiting patients at the National Naval Medical Center (NNMC) at Bethesda, Md., when she came upon a sailor sleeping in his car. Asking if he needed assistance, she was surprised to hear that this sailor’s wife was hospitalized and undergoing treatment and he had nowhere – and no means – to stay in more comfortable quarters. He explained he was sleeping in his car, simply to be close to her.

Upon hearing this story, Fisher was spurred to action, and the Fisher House Foundation was born. Its mission would be to construct “comfort homes” on the grounds of military and Veterans Affairs hospitals and provide free, temporary lodging for the families of service members – like that unnamed sailor – who needed to be near their families while they underwent medical treatment.

Michelle Obama  Ken Fisher Fisher House Foundation

First lady Michelle Obama and Ken Fisher, chairman of the Fisher House Foundation, at the dedication ceremony of new Fisher Houses in Maryland. Photo by Joyce Boghosian

The first house opened at the National Naval Medical Center in 1991. Twenty years later, the Fisher House experience offers families more than just a place to sleep. It is an emotional and spiritual support structure for the families who stay there.

“Being close to other people who are walking the same road as you are is an invaluable source of strength,” said Ken Fisher, chairman of Fisher House. “Families create bonds that last the rest of their lives. We’ve even had people meet and get married as a result of their stay at a Fisher House.”

The Fisher House Foundation pays for the complete construction cost of every house, raising funds through private means, and then donates the houses to the local military base or VA once it is complete. Not one penny of taxpayer dollars goes toward the construction of a Fisher House.

The Fisher House experience doesn’t start and end at the front door, either. The foundation also runs the Hero Miles program, through which air travelers can donate unused frequent flyer miles to help military families defray travel expenses. The foundation has given away nearly 19,000 tickets to families needing emergency transportation to the bedside of a loved one.

In 2010 alone, Fisher Houses opened in Boston, Mass.; St. Louis, Mo.; Chicago, Ill.; Miami, Fla.; Bethesda; and elsewhere. A unique facility, the Fisher House and Meditation Pavilion for the Families of the Fallen, opened at Andrews Air Force Base in Dover, Del., to serve the families who come there to repatriate the remains of their loved ones killed overseas. The Fisher House philosophy – “Because a family’s love is good medicine” – lives on today. More than 50 Fisher Houses are in operation, mostly in the United States (there are two in Germany). It is one of the most distinctive private-public partnerships that supports America’s military in their time of greatest need. A dozen more Fisher Houses are in various stages of construction right now across the country.


Delivering to Those Who Served – Remembering the Heroes

National Intrepid Center of Excellence

National Intrepid Center of Excellence, located on the National Naval Medical Center campus in Bethesda, Md. Photo courtesy of Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund

“The center is a tribute to the generosity of the American people. Make no mistake about it – the American people support the men and women who wear our nation’s uniform. The center is a testament to our deep belief that someone wounded in defense of America needs all the help that he or she can get.” – George W. Bush during a 2007 visit to the Center for the Intrepid.

In addition to the Fisher House Foundation, the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund (IFHF) is a trailblazer in assisting the men and women of the armed forces and their families, providing close to $120 million in support. As with Fisher House, these efforts are funded entirely with private donations. Hundreds of thousands of individuals have contributed to the IFHF over the years.

From 2000 to 2005, the IFHF provided close to $20 million to families of United States and British military personnel killed while serving, mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2005, long-lobbied-for federal legislation significantly improved the benefits granted to those families.

Finding to a great extent such support completed, the IFHF redirected its focus toward supporting those soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen severely injured in combat, specifically through the construction of state-of-the-art diagnosis and treatment centers: the Center for the Intrepid (CFI), which opened in 2007; and the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE), which followed in 2010. Each costing approximately $55 million to build, they are fitted with cutting-edge technology to speed the diagnosis and treatment of men and women returning from the field of battle.

The CFI is located at Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) in San Antonio and concentrates on physical rehabilitation due to amputations and burns, which are mostly suffered by those serving in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters. It was dedicated Jan. 29, 2007, with a ceremony attended by thousands of wounded warriors and their families, as well as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, then-Veterans Affairs Secretary James R. Nicholson, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace, USMC, and celebrity supporters Big & Rich, Rosie O’Donnell, and John Mellencamp, among others.

The NICoE focuses on traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), called the “signature injuries” of current overseas conflicts. Located on the campus of the NNMC, it makes available advanced methods of screening for and diagnosing “invisible wounds” of the brain and nervous system, which can often be the hardest to treat. The NICoE was dedicated June 24, 2010, and began receiving its first patients in fall 2010 (four Fisher Houses are also located on the NNMC campus).

Research has shown that during IED explosions, the head can receive a violent blow, causing the brain to strike the skull. As a defense mechanism, the brain begins to shut down, lowering its activity level in order to begin the process of repair. The center is a state-of-the-art facility working endlessly to help victims of these types of head injuries.


One Man’s Success: Touching the Lives of Others

“Success to me is when someone amasses a certain amount of money and then does something for others with that money. I feel I’ve succeeded in finding places to help.” – Zachary Fisher, commenting on his business and success

For many years, the Fishers continued to dedicate themselves to the armed forces and to those who serve. They ardently supported a number of humanitarian endeavors and were dedicated to bringing public awareness to the U.S. military and to helping those in need.

The Intrepid Family of Foundations – while created by the Fisher family – exists and thrives due to the generosity of the American people who open their hearts and generously donate every year to support these invaluable programs.

Fisher also went out of his way to support other charitable organizations that benefit U.S. troops. He served as honorary chairman of the board of directors to the Marine Corps – Law Enforcement Foundation and was a supporter of the Coast Guard Foundation, the Navy League, and other military charities and organizations. Fisher also established the annual Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Award for Excellence in military medicine.

Fisher was often recognized for his service, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton in 1998 in honor of his extensive contributions on behalf of all men and women in the U.S. armed forces.

He also received the Horatio Alger Award, the Volunteer Action Award, the Presidential Citizens Medal, and the Senior Civilian Award from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of Defense, as well as the top awards a civilian can receive from each branch of the military services.

He was a major supporter of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, the Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs, the George C. Marshall Foundation, the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, the United Jewish Appeal, the Metropolitan Opera, and countless other organizations.

Fisher also served on the boards of Carnegie Hall and several other institutions and received honorary doctoral degrees from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.

Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, as well as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, all recognized Fisher for his support of charitable organizations throughout the United States and around the world. The Presidential Plaque, presented to him by Reagan, reads: “To the tireless, dedicated work of many Americans, the Intrepid will serve as an inspiration. One man deserves special tribute: Zachary Fisher, a patriotic American who never forgot and cares so much.”

In 1999, Fisher received his most cherished honor when Clinton signed Public Law 106-161 conferring upon him the status of an honorary veteran in the U.S. armed forces.

And in the end his legacy still lives on. His marble headstone speaks volumes with just three words: “Builder, Philanthropist, Patriot.”


Why the Fishers?

If you have not served in the military, service to our nation may be difficult to understand; serving takes a special breed. Service goes unnoticed daily; law enforcement officers, firemen, teachers, and emergency service providers provide what we cannot live without: security, safety, education, and support.

The Fishers took their own path to service, demonstrating a commitment and dedication through funding and personal support that has touched the lives of many.

With more than 4,600 killed in action and many more wounded in action during the past 10 years, the Fishers’ dedication and support has directly benefited those who serve. When you ask a wounded soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, or Coast Guardsman about their recovery story, be it in Landstuhl, Germany, Washington, D.C., or San Antonio, Texas, they will likely say thank you to the Fisher family.


Donna Lyons resides in Washington, D.C., and works nationally as an independent military news journalist...

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    Jack Lanson

    This is an awesome article. The family seems very heroic. Great work Ms. Lyons from a Navy Veteran! Your work is truly inspiring!