Behind the Story Podcast Series
The Tale of Two Cities: Part 2
Empire State Building, New York
Nikki Gamer: Hi, everyone, this is Nikki Gamer for Catholic Relief Services. And welcome back to Behind the Story, a podcast series that invites you to celebrate the people behind 75 years of our history. It’s the people we serve, our partners, our staff and especially our supporters who make our work possible.
Last month, in Part 1 of The Tale of Two Cities, we took you to Santa Rosa, Mexico, and you heard from Julek Plowy, a World War II refugee from Poland, born in the Soviet gulags.
But this month, in Part 2, we take you to the CRS offices on the 79th floor of the Empire State Building. Here, while Julek was in Santa Rosa—CRS’ first project—20 CRS staffers had come into work on a Saturday morning. It was 1945, and there were thousands of war refugees who needed assistance.
Bishop Edward Swanstrom, CRS’ assistant executive director, decided he needed a haircut. So he left his desk and took the elevator to the ground floor. Within minutes, an Army plane came crashing into his office window.
The combat-tested pilot had just radioed into LaGuardia Airport. He wanted to land his B-25 bomber after a transport mission. Now, the air traffic controller told him that the fog was so thick she couldn’t even see the top of the Empire State Building. So, she diverted him to Newark, New Jersey. Now, for reasons we can only speculate, he turned the wrong way. And by the time he saw the Empire State Building through his windshield, he was 200 feet away. It was too late.
Archive News Broadcast: We are delaying the start of our regularly scheduled program to bring you a special news report on the crash of an airplane into the Empire State Building.
Nikki Gamer: The aftermath was an inferno. Therese Fortier Willig, a CRS employee, was 20 years old at the time. During an interview in 1995, Therese talked about what she witnessed.
Therese Fortier Willig: Six of us managed to get into this one office that seemed to be untouched by the fire and close the door before it engulfed us. There was no doubt that the other people must have been killed.
You’re sort of stuck there, on an island with fire all around us. A couple of women had passed out from the smoke. I didn’t expect to get out alive. Somebody opened the window. And I’m sitting there, and I thought about my rings, and I figured somebody else might as well have use out of them. So I took them off my fingers and threw them out the window.
A man appeared, you know, a few stories down. He looked up and he signaled up to us. I guess he was trying to give us a little solace that “I know that you’re there, don’t worry,” and that was a connection with the rest of the world. We all felt a little better to know that someone knew we were there.
All of a sudden here were firemen and they were coming to rescue us, you know, all dressed up in their raincoats and whatever they wear when they… It was just wonderful.
Nikki Gamer: Of the 20 CRS workers in their office—which bore the brunt of the crash—11 were killed. Also killed were the pilot and crew from the plane.
The 11 killed were heroes long before the plane hit their office—selflessly working to channel the compassion and philanthropy of Catholics in the U.S. to those in desperate need, including Julek Plowy and the 1,500 refugees CRS was helping in Santa Rosa.
Now, a couple of things about the Empire State Building that you might not have known: It was part of a competition to build the world’s tallest building. Since it was after the Great Depression, it was expensive, so it was only half-occupied at the time of the crash. And CRS was given use of its offices rent-free.
The man behind the building preferred to stay behind the scenes. John J. Raskob was a smalltown Catholic boy from Ohio. He used his financial skills to work his way from Pierre DuPont’s personal assistant to New York powerbroker.
And so, our second tale really begins before the plane crash—with one of CRS’ longest partnerships. The Raskob Foundation remains a generous and loyal supporter of our humanitarian relief and development work to this day.
Dana Robinson is John J.Raskob’s grandson. And following in Raskob family tradition, Dana visited CRS projects in Africa while he was in college in the 1960s. He ended up working for Monsignor Wilson Kaiser, who established many of our first programs in Africa in the 1950s. Dana, can you tell us about Monsignor Kaiser?
Dana Robinson: Yes, he’s a legend at CRS. He was considered a rebel by senior management in the Empire State Building because he never followed the rules. He just got things done, regardless of policy. And he had a big heart. He was responsible for bringing a lot of students to this country and finding ’em scholarships and homes. That’s the kind of man that Monsignor was. When he saw somebody in need, he’d try to take care of ’em. I was taken by him because he was a priest, a monsignor and he was just so real, and alive and authentic. He loved cigars. He liked to eat. He was a good man.
Nikki Gamer: So as I understand it, your grandfather had a connection to the Empire State Building. What did you hear your family say about that time in history?
Dana Robinson: I recall learning from both family lore and CRS lore that the plane crashed into Bishop Swanstrom’s office. And Bishop Swanstrom, moments before, had left the office to go down to the ground floor to get his haircut. I’ve always considered that providential, because he wouldn’t have been with us if he hadn’t gone down to get his haircut.
For years, the Empire State Building was having a hard time finding tenants, because it was so unusual. But the crash demonstrated that it wouldn’t topple over. And as a consequence of that, it filled up. I think that it makes sense that CRS would become a tenant because of the connection that Raskob had with the hierarchy in New York at the time.
When Raskob died in 1950, the Empire State Building was sold and it was the proceeds of that building that funded the Raskob Foundation. So there’s a connection there.
Nikki Gamer: So, can you tell us a little bit about the Raskob Foundation?
Dana Robinson: Well, it was founded by John Raskob and his wife, Helena, in 1945. They were, of course, very generous people and very wealthy. I think they saw the danger of leaving great wealth to successive generations, because it has a way of depriving people of motivation.
The Foundation—which is about to celebrate its 75th anniversary, not unlike CRS—the Foundation members are descendants of the founders. And the Foundation, which since its inception has given out over $200 million all over the world.
Nikki Gamer: Can you talk about the similarities between the Raskob Foundation turning 75 and CRS’ very own 75th?
Dana Robinson: The shared event that comes to mind would be Vatican II. And it would be interesting to consider how Vatican II affected each of those organizations. With the Raskob Foundation, I think the enhanced role of the laity became more important, and more real, in terms of what the Church is doing in the field; Because all of Raskob’s grants go through the Catholic Church, but many of the do-ers now—in fact, probably most of them—are not ordained, or they’re laity, who are working with the Church.
People say to us, “Well what does it mean to be Catholic?” You can guess my answer. We say that unlike before Vatican II, nothing was Catholic unless it was. Today, we say everything is Catholic unless it isn’t. Because any gesture on the part of one person that recognizes or promotes the dignity of another is a reflection of the Gospel, and therefore, in our opinion, it should be considered Catholic.
Nikki Gamer: Well, let me ask you this: How do you see the future of CRS and the Raskob family?
Dana Robinson: I am hoping that it’s a close relationship. CRS enables responsible philanthropy because it provides due diligence, which is more and more critical in philanthropy. It also provides follow-up reporting, which is increasingly important. As I mentioned earlier—and this is the real attraction, at least for me, of CRS, and that is: It encourages onsite collaboration with other parties—all of which makes for an efficient and effective discharge of CRS’ responsibilities, but also the responsibilities of the donor groups, like the Raskob Foundation. CRS is another reminder of what’s important in the world and how to engage our own talents and gifts to contribute to the betterment of the world.
Nikki Gamer: What is it that you hope for? And you can answer that any way you want.
Dana Robinson: You mean other than salvation?
I’m hoping that the world rediscovers beauty. This is what Dostoevsky said: “Beauty is going to save the world.”
Because beauty, truth and goodness are the celestial triumvirate. They’re the three powers that surround the throne of God. And goodness has lost her effectiveness because the state takes care of everything now. And truth has lost its effectiveness because nobody believes that there is such a thing. But beauty is something that men and women seek. And when we begin to respond to beauty, we’re going to rediscover truth and goodness.
Nikki Gamer: Well, that’s beautiful. Thank you for sharing that.
Well, that wraps up our two-part chapter of The Tale of Two Cities. Julek Plowy. Bishop Swanstrom. John J. Raskob. Dana Robinson. These are just a few of the names that are part of our CRS history. But we have 75 years to share with you.
So, join us next month as we explore the 1950s, featuring Dana Robinson’s old boss, Monsignor Kaiser, and his excellent adventure across sub-Saharan Africa in a VW Bus—and I would totally go on that trip. But, until then, thanks for listening. And if you can’t wait for our next podcast, check us out online at 75.crs.org.
Therese Fortier Willig interview courtesy radiodiaries.org.