We’re reposting this on the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. The story—originally published in 2015—is featured in the GNN paperback book—a collection of our most inspiring stories from our first 20 years.
On Sept. 11, 2001, 66 men and women who worked for the investment banking firm Sandler O’Neill & Partners on the 104th floor in the World Trade Center lost their lives.
In the harrowing days following the terrorist attacks, the company made the decision to set up a foundation to pay college tuition for all the 76 children of their fallen colleagues.
I called the Sandler O’Neill Foundation the other day to talk about those children, and learned that 54 young men and women have had their college tuition paid so far, with 22 young men and women still eligible.
The 54 who are now attending or have attended college have gone to every sort of school imaginable — from Stanford to Notre Dame to community colleges and technical institutes.
Four students have attended Boston College, the alma mater of Welles Crowther, the 24-year-old Sandler O’Neill employee who saved as many as 12 people in the south tower before running back upstairs to save more people and never being seen again.
The youngest child eligible was born six weeks after September 11. When that child graduates from college, the Sandler O’Neill Foundation will cease to exist, except in memory; but what a resounding memory it will be.
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Andy Armstrong was one of the founders of the foundation. Though he did not work for Sandler O’Neill, he was a friend of Sandler’s surviving partner, Jimmy Dunne. He and others of Dunne’s friends and colleagues – as well as banking competitors – helped set up and endow the foundation.
“We were up and running by the end of the first week,” Armstrong says. “We wanted the families of the lost to know that we would always remember, that the passing years would never sweep this under the rug. People donated many millions of dollars to set up the foundation. We have no salaries and no expenses except fees to stay extant.”
“I know most of the children who went to college. You wouldn’t believe some of the letters they have written in appreciation. I think they particularly appreciate that we remember their mom or dad this way. Many of them hardly knew their moms and dads.”
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I called Jimmy Dunne at Sandler O’Neill to ask him why he instantly did so very much the right thing, the extraordinary thing, when it would have been so easy and normal and understandable to just do enough.
“Because there was a moment in time to stand up,” Dunne says, bluntly. “Because we believed that what we did would echo for a hundred years in the families of our people, their kids and their grandkids. Because how we conducted ourselves in those first few hours and days would define who we really were and what we were about.”
“Because I knew that if we were not honorable, then we stood for nothing. I concluding immediately that we would not be intimidated, we would not go out of business, we will come back stronger than ever, and be an example of people who worked and lived with honor. And that meant taking care of our people and their children with respect and reverence. So we did that.”
“We figured what we did and how we did it was our way of fighting idiots like bin Laden. You want us to fall apart? Then we will survive and flourish. You want to destroy us? Then we will insist even more on acting with honor. That’s what the foundation was for, is for. We want our defiance and reverence to echo for a century, so that the grandchildren of our people will know we stood for something, and acted honorably when it really counted.”
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Brian Doyle was the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland – “the best spiritual magazine in America,” says Annie Dillard. He was the author of many books, before he passed away in 2017.
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