It goes from Public Housing to the Metropolitan Opera House and from Washington Heights to the Heights of Washington.
In our film for Columbia’s 75th Annual Alexander Hamilton Award Dinner, the honoree—financier and philanthropist George Van Amson (CC’74)—tells us: “116th and Broadway is light years away from the Throgs Neck Projects.” And as the film dissolves to a shot of an elevated subway train heading for the distant land of Wall Street, the metaphor is clear. The real elevated train is the rarefied opportunity that is Columbia University. If anyone still needs proof that higher education is by far the best way of elevating individuals and society all at once, just listen to Mr. Van Amson’s story. Yes, he was given many opportunities. But the real drama of the story is that Van Amson is giving so much back. Admirers say that he is the best of all possible mentors. And what does he get in return? Van Amson answers: “Well, I get everything from it. Everything.”
George Van Amson encapsulates his approach to philanthropy this way. “It’s easing the pain. And spreading the joy.” His work to combat community violence is easing the pain. His service as a trustee on the Met Opera board is spreading the joy. There you have it. A life’s journey that started in public housing and ended up at The Metropolitan Opera House. By the end of our film, by all accounts, the gala attendees at the Hamilton Award Dinner were visibly moved.
A few weeks earlier, another New Yorker’s ascent was being chronicled. It was Henry Kissinger’s. He, too, made a dramatic life journey. His was from Washington Heights to the heights of Washington. Our film on Dr. Kissinger was being shown at the storied Al Smith Dinner at the Park Avenue Armory. Narrated by the brilliant speechwriter and Wall Street Journal columnist, Peggy Noonan, the film spoke about the friendly political jousting that has gone on at the Al Smith Foundation Dinner for nearly 80 years. We aptly titled the piece: “Making Peace with Ourselves,” a phrase from a speech that Dr. Kissinger delivered at the same dinner more than fifty years ago. At this October’s event, Kissinger mustered the strength to speak again. As it turned out, the interview we at M+/ADLubow did with Henry Kissinger for the film was likely the last one he gave in his life. But that’s another story.