Nineteen eighty four was a big year for me, and for New York University. I met my wife to be (more about that to follow), and NYU began a billion dollar fundraising campaign. There’s an article in the NY Times published on March 20, 1995 entitled A Decade and a Billion Dollars Put New York U. in the First Rank, which describes what NYU did between 1984 and 1994. The story begins in the mid-1970s. New York City was bankrupt and seeking a bailout. Not as well known was the bankruptcy, in the same time period, of two of New York City’s iconic institutions, New York University and the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, a problem solved by NY State intervention, which required that NYU sell its Bronx campus and transfer its Engineering School to Brooklyn Poly.
NYU realized that big changes were necessary to avoid their continuing fiscal problems and imagined the possibility that the school could raise a billion dollars in 15 years, which would be used to transform the school. This goal, seen by many as impossible was, in fact, reached in 10 years. In an effort described by Lawrence Tisch, the head of CBS, as expending a great deal of shoe leather trekking about the city visiting fellow financial moguls, an average of about two million dollars a week for ten years was raised. That’s the story told in the New York Times article. However, in the early 1970s when the bottom was falling out for both NYU and New York City, the university somehow found the money to build the magnificent Bobst library, which was opened at the downtown NYU campus, and, most important, fill the library with an excellent collection of science journals. I owe my happy marriage to this journal collection.
When I returned to the city of my birth in January, 1980 and took a tenured professor’s job at Brooklyn Poly, this famous Brooklyn institution, although no longer bankrupt, was, unknown to me, on its financial knees. While NYU was setting the foundation for its resurrection by raising one billion dollars, fundraising by Poly, as the school was fondly known, although notable in discovering new sources of revenue, was not keeping up with its fiscal slide downward. This was apparent to yours truly, as, for one example, when the heating oil delivery was delayed leading to freezing pipes and destroyed water condensers on distillation apparatuses in my lab. However, most serious was the interference with the scholarship necessary for the foundation of research – the cancelled subscriptions to scientific journals from the Poly library.
In the early 1980s, I had friends on the faculty of NYU who informed the administration that this chemistry professor from Poly was wealthy and would probably make a large donation to NYU, if he could use the library. In no time, I had an ID card with the magic swipe properties allowing entry to the Bobst and access to the ninth floor, the home of the journals I needed to read. So, one Friday, in early March, 1984, as was my usual habit, I went into the Jay Street-Boro Hall station next to Poly to take the train to West 4th Street to spend an afternoon devoted to scholarship on the ninth floor of Bobst. This Brooklyn subway station offered three possibilities to get to West 4th Street, as it still does today – the A, C or F trains. I waited for the faster sleek A train but the clunky C train (covered in the graffiti of the time) arrived first, which had a stop not used by the A train – Spring Street in the Soho district. I boarded the old C train (still in use today but without the graffiti) and sat down. The stations came and went: High Street (with massive pillars and cylindrical shaped walls to hold up the pressure of earth and water as the train crosses under the East River); Fulton Street in lower Manhattan (still deep under ground after coming up from under the river and a key crossing point to get to both the east and west sides of Manhattan); Chambers Street (where justice is nearby, and hopefully meted out); Canal Street (where the smell of Chinese food almost penetrates into the station); and then the extra stop before my final destination, Spring Street (where nearby there was an excellent health food restaurant called Food). The train doors were closing as I realized, almost too late, that a bowl of their dense vegetarian soup with a thick slice of whole grain bread would probably mean I would not have to leave the library driven by hunger and would therefore gain on my scholarly pursuits. I jumped up and clearly remember barely making it through the closing doors. When I arrived at Food (long ago closed) it was nearly noon and the sun was just making it into the south facing windows of the about to open restaurant when I noticed another presence waiting with me for the opening. It was a woman. I should add that now twenty eight years after my marriage to this woman, Poly and NYU are finally, on January 1, 2014, getting around to merging so that students from both institutions will be taking that same subway ride, in both directions, a subway ride which netted me a happy marriage.