Friday, September 18, 2015

Exceptional American of the day: Frank Bailey

His parents were well-educated, but poor. His father graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and became a country doctor. His mother (20 years his father's junior) graduated from Mount Holyoke. Their home had been designed to be a stop in the Underground Railroad, in which slaves traveled north to freedom in Canada.

Growing up poor in Chatham, New York, where he was born on January 5, 1865, Frank Bailey was determined not only to get a good education, but to use it to become financially secure. What he did with that wealth was worthy of his parents work as abolitionists.

Bailey knew his only shot at a college education was a scholarship, and so he hunkered down and graduated from high school at 16. Williams College turned him down because he lacked the money to attend school, but Union College in Schenectady offered the lad a full scholarship. It was the best investment the college ever made.

Graduating at 20, he moved to New York City -- Brooklyn, not Manhattan. He became an office boy at the Title Guarantee and Trust Company. Through hard work, careful study, and attention to details, Bailey became a master in real estate and financing. Brooklyn became a seaport and manufacturing center during the Civil War. The completion of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 made land transportation to Manhattan possible. No more ferries. There was a fortune to be made there, and Frank Bailey made it. He rose from office boy to company vice president and finally, company president in 1923. But he also made money from projects independent of the company.

In 1896, Bailey became president of the Union College Alumni Association just 11 years after graduation. His alma mater was in dire straits financially. In 1901, he became the college's treasurer. While he remained in Brooklyn, he sent his assistants to Schenectady to straighten out the mess. He sold off unused property, tightened the budget, began fund-raising, and wrote checks as he donated $1.5 million in just a short time to keep the college open. Someone believed in him when he was 16, and years later he was paying that debt back. In 1908, they awarded him an honorary doctorate, and the title “Savior of Union College.”

His philanthropy had just begun. His father had been a an amateur botanist who had studied under Amos Eaton, a pioneer in botany, at Rensselaer. Doctor Bailey may not have had money to pass along to his son, but he passed along something better, an appreciation for nature.

Frank Bailey and his third wife bought a 42-acre estate in 1911 in Locust Valley, New York. The retreat included a country home, which Bailey later christened Munnysunk. The idea that a man so knowledgeable of real estate and financing professionally would purchase a Money Pit is amusing. Likely the name was an exaggeration of the expense involved in renovating a century-old house.

The Baileys planted trees instead of flowers on their property, creating a wonderful arboretum.

In 1945 by Alfred A. Knopf published Bailey's memoir, "It Can’t Happen Here Again: The Life Story of a Self-Made Man."

But his life was not without tragedy. He was twice widowed before he met and fell in love with Marie Louise Lambert, whose grandfather had been a mayor of Brooklyn. Their son, Frank Jr., died in his senior year at Union College in 1931.

On August 26, 1953, after spending the day working on Union College finances, he died at age 87 at Munnysunk leaving behind not only a legacy to his family (and another $1.5 million to Union College) but a better Brooklyn and with the death of his wife in 1968, Munnysunk and its arboretum became the property of Nassau County, which remains open to the public.

I ask readers to think about Frank Bailey the next time someone denigrates bankers and lenders.


I have published two collections of the best in this series and I am working on a third. Readers may purchase them online: "Exceptional Americans 1" and "Exceptional Americans 2."

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