Roots and Traditions: Family Legacy Over Time and Tragedy

"There are two things that parents give their children: one is roots, the other is wings." So begins Annie Dyson's emotional tribute to her father in the 1997 Annual Report of the Dyson Foundation. Three years later, Annie herself passed away after a year’s battle with breast cancer, leading her brother Robert to write: "Even as we mourn Annie, the foundation’s work continues. Our values will remain the same as ever, our priorities are clear, and our commitments to our grantees are strong and unchanging. We look forward to doing more and doing better, to strengthening our work in the Mid-Hudson Valley, to continuing Annie’s Dyson Pediatrics Initiative, and to fostering new initiatives in the years to come."

Celebration of a Life: From the 1996 Report

He left quite a mark on this world, on his children, the business community and the many charitable organizations whose work he supported and cared about. This man that I describe was, of course, my beloved father, who passed away in mid-March of this year, forty years after starting this foundation with my mother.

My father—and my mother—were extraordinary individuals and remarkable parents to my three brothers and me. Dad, especially, believed that his wealth was his only in a transitory fashion and that he served as its guardian for a short time. He believed that its true purpose was for the betterment of society and the “greater good.” Of course, my parents lived well and comfortably, but they lived quietly and unobtrusively, avoiding the spotlight that so many seek for confirmation. For my parents recognized, as do my siblings and I because of their lessons, that public accolades and acknowledgments were not what genuine charity and philanthropy were really all about. Rather, they are about giving back, about taking care of those less fortunate than you and sharing your bounty with others. It was not until the 1970s that my parents permitted the family name to be placed on any program or structure that we had supported. In more recent years, we have lent our name to various efforts or facilities, but each time it has been with some hesitation and much consideration. My parents’ modesty was real and heartfelt—their grace was in their giving. After my father’s death, my brother John remarked that Dad was nearly impossible to thank, and it was only after his passing that many learned of his countless acts of quiet generosity in our home community of Millbrook, New York.

We knew he would leave us sooner rather than later, given that he was 87 years old and in declining health. His was, indeed, a full and good life, with many singular accomplishments along the way. His memorial service was deemed a “Celebration of a Life” and the many words of condolence we have received from his business associates, friends and colleagues honored his life rather than mourned his death. A family friend wrote: “If I could select one person who embodied all the qualities I most admire, it would be he. He was strong but gentle, decisive but patient, confident but modest, and withall, one of the most caring and generous people I have ever known.”

We will miss him terribly, for we were as close to our father as any grown children can be. Both of our parents taught us exceedingly well, equipping us with strength of purpose, self confidence, a sense of altruism and charity, and strong, ethical values. What more could we have asked of them? How awe-inspiring to realize that our children deserve no less from us.

An enclosure in another condolence note included this quote from the 18th century English poet, Thomas Gray:

If I should die and leave you here awhile,
Be not like others, soon undone, who keep
Long vigil by the silent dust and weep.
For my sake turn again to life and smile,
Nerving thy heart and trembling hand to do
Something to comfort weaker heart than thine.
Complete these dear unfinished tasks of mine,
And I, perchance, may therein comfort you.

My father made certain that all his children shared in this heritage of “unfinished tasks.” A few years ago, my brother, Rob, became the Chairman and CEO of the corporation that my father founded, the Dyson-Kissner-Moran Corporation, and for the last eighteen years, I have served as the President of the Dyson Foundation. My brothers, John and Peter, continue their personal philanthropy in the family tradition, and John is well known for his public service. Each of us is terribly proud to carry on the work that our parents began ever so modestly forty years ago.

My parents’ commitment to enlightened philanthropy was legendary. They considered the Dyson Foundation to be their shared and most cherished legacy. The future of this endeavor is a formidable responsibility and a remarkable opportunity. The foundation’s mission to make this country a better, more caring place for its children and youth remains unchanged; our task is no less challenging, our dedication just as fervent.

Roots and Traditions: From the 1997 Report

There are two things that parents give their children: one is roots, the other is wings. Such is true of my father, the son of poor, uneducated but courageous immigrants from Great Britain who came to this country in search of the American dream. Encouraged to work hard and strive to succeed, my father was always willing to take chances, to gamble on his every triumph, and to accept change as the circumstances of his life dictated. With the good sense and constant support of my mother, my father was inspired to take whatever risks he felt were necessary in his quest for success. When I was four years old, we moved into a big house in Scarsdale; my father was out of a job, and my mother, though pregnant with my third brother, continued to encourage my father to pursue his dream of starting his own company!

My father was a self-made man in the truest sense of the term: raised modestly by his hard-working parents in small-town New Jersey, he earned a CPA degree at night from Pace Institute, because it was a degree he thought he could earn quickly and use immediately to better his lot in life. With a combination of courage, smarts and luck, our father did, indeed, use that night-school education in numbers-crunching to great advantage, becoming a successful financier and establishing our family corporation, one of the first leveraged-buyout firms in America.

No matter what his financial achievements, however, my father – and my mother at his side – recognized an obligation to offer opportunity to those less fortunate. He believed that he was a steward of his wealth, that it was his for a brief time to nurture and increase, but that it was his obligation to then pass that wealth on for the greater good of others. He regarded education as the great equalizer, equipping the individual with the ability to seize opportunities to achieve. Throughout his very successful career, the challenge and pursuit of good business deals was certainly what gave him great pleasure; always in his mind, however, was the concept that the greater his success, the more there was for charitable purposes. My father achieved success beyond my humble grandfather’s wildest dreams. But he never forgot his roots, those of a family tradition of hard work and diligent effort to improve his lot in life and, having accomplished so much, to give back to the community that supported him along the way.

It is a tradition that includes making choices, taking chances and accepting change as circumstances dictate. In 1979, for example, my father quite literally passed on the stewardship of the Dyson Foundation to me as we walked along the sidewalk in New York City together. When he passed away in March, 1997, his and my mother’s estates, as planned, passed on to the foundation. As a consequence, the foundation is now in the truly wonderful position of having a large endowment; our philanthropic pursuits continue to evolve, but the basic tenet of our activity is the effort to help others to help themselves, now on a grander scale.

As we endeavor to craft new directions for our future giving, change will be inevitable. You will note a new format to our funding categories, which now include: Pediatrics and Child Health, Mid-Hudson Valley, Legacy and Special Initiatives. Over the next several months, our programs in each of these four areas will become better defined; we intend to be thoughtful and thorough in the planning process which we began early in 1998. The amount of funding devoted to these specific sectors will be changing over time as well. We intend to “lead with our strength” by looking at opportunities in pediatrics where this organization, headed by a community-based, advocacy-oriented pediatrician, can help identify initiatives that will have long-lasting impact and foster some alteration in “business as usual.” Our Mid-Hudson Valley focus has long stemmed from our family’s emotional roots here in the Dutchess County area. Recognizing that good grantmaking involves more than just money, we will explore how to continue to help strengthen the not-for-profit sector in our region, thereby providing the opportunity for area organizations to more effectively help others to realize their potential. Legacy, or family interest, grants are those to organizations that my family has historically had a connection with, through whatever avenue. Finally, our Special Initiative grants are those that my brother, Rob, refers to as “hop on it” grants – those that deal with an emerging issue or crisis in an area of particular interest to us; for example, assuring the availability of reproductive health services in communities threatened by hospital or provider reorganizations.

In spite of this transformation, however, there remains one true constant: the legacy of my parents to be good citizens, to give back to our community. They instilled in their four children a thankfulness for our blessings that guides our efforts now, quietly and thoughtfully, as we continue our family tradition. Winston Churchill once stated, “A man makes a living by what he gets, he makes a life by what he gives.” Both my parents’ lives are testimony to their courage, their generosity and their compassion; their children’s lives thus far are testimony to the importance and power of roots and wings in creating a meaningful life. To my siblings and me falls the challenge of transmitting not only the message but also the core substance of our parents’ lives to our own children, that they might grasp their heritage with the same pride and fervor.

Passing On

(Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from a September 2000 letter from Robert R. Dyson to friends and grantees of the Dyson Foundation.)

As you may know, my sister Annie Dyson died recently after a year’s battle with breast cancer. Annie had served as the President of our family foundation since 1979, and her leadership and vision has guided its work. She helped to shape it into a foundation that works hard to have a real and lasting impact on the communities we serve and the issues we care about. Her death is a genuine loss to not only our family, but to those whose lives she touched through her commitment to service as a pediatrician and her creative and thoughtful approach to philanthropy.

When our parents established the Dyson Foundation in 1957, it was with a genuine and heartfelt spirit of “giving back.” I am very proud of this legacy, and the standards of leadership established by my sister. I know that as a foundation trustee I will continue to work hard to carry these philanthropic traditions into the future.

Even as we mourn Annie, the foundation’s work continues. Our values will remain the same as ever, our priorities are clear, and our commitments to our grantees are strong and unchanging. We look forward to doing more and doing better, to strengthening our work in the Mid-Hudson Valley, to continuing Annie’s Dyson Pediatrics Initiative, and to fostering new initiatives in the years to come.

Get Involved

Search Knowledge Center for Resources!

We’re here to help you on your philanthropic journey. Contact NCFP for support!

Get Assistance

Keep up with trends in family philanthropy. Subscribe to our newsletter!

Signup

Family philanthropy improves the quality of life for all. Join our family!

Join Now