Faith “Happy” Reichert, who was the oldest living Cornell graduate, a longtime instructor at the NYU School of Retailing and the host of an early television show, “FYI: The Helen Faith Keane Show,” has died at 109.
The witty, effervescent Reichert, born Helen Faith Kahn — which she altered to Keane while at Cornell to avoid discrimination in housing — was the oldest of four siblings, all of whom lived to be over 100. She sold World War I bonds for her Girl Scout troop and saw the ticker-tape parade for Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 trans-Atlantic flight. She was a keen booster of Cornell and founded the Helen F. Reichert Scholarship there, and made a $100,000 gift to a Cornell housing initiative in her will. Her husband’s collection of vintage diagnostic instruments was also left to the Weill Cornell Medical College.
Reichert took a mischievous delight in puncturing others’ expectations of what it takes to achieve such longevity, making a point, in fact, of drinking and smoking at parties — she smoked for most of her adult life. She told WWD during an interview in 2005 that she had “no idea” what was important in a healthy diet.
In 1925, Reichert married Dr. Phillip Reichert, who was one of the founding members of the American College of Cardiologists; he died in 1985. After attending Cornell, she completed a master’s degree at Columbia University Teachers’ College, then became a copywriter. In 1949, Reichert and some friends founded the Roundtable of Fashion Executives, a group of women executives in fashion that was intended as a counterpoint to the Fashion Group, which she felt had become too large. It was also meant to support women in what was then a male-dominated field. She remained active in the group well past her 100th birthday.
In 1951, she was working for Alden’s catalogue, the third-largest catalogue in the country at the time, and she pitched to them her idea of an Elsa Schiaparelli capsule collection, which the designer had agreed to do. They were interested, but told her she had to get approval for the project from the board of directors. Unfortunately, none of them was in fashion; they had no notion of who Schiaparelli was, and turned the project down.
One day, in the early days of television, Reichert was watching a fashion show program with a man doing the commentary, a narration she considered so hamfisted that she called the station to complain. When she ended up talking to a producer about it, he arranged to have lunch with her, then offered her her own show. The format of “FYI” was that women would write in to ask a medical question; if the same query came up 15 times, Reichert would do a program on it, with a doctor addressing the issue in question. At the time, the taboo words and topics included “breasts,” “cancer” and “sex.” However, Reichert ended up winning a McCall’s Magazine Golden Microphone Award, a precursor of the Emmy, for an episode that addressed breast cancer.
One evening, Reichert and her husband went to dinner with a friend who was a top administrator at NYU, who told them that he had many GI Bill students enrolling in the School of Retailing, but no one to teach them. He offered her a job. Phillip was very pleased; she hadn’t had a vacation since she started working in television, and he was happy to negotiate her contract, with two months off each summer. She taught there for 30 years.
Even in retirement, and as the years went on, she was remarkably forward-looking. She continued to live in the same well-appointed apartment in the East 30s she had shared with her husband. She was always interested in and up on current events, in fashion or otherwise. Once, after a Chinese lunch one day when she was 104, she received a fortune cookie. “I wonder what the future holds?” she asked, without a trace of disingenuousness, as she opened it.
Reichert’s sister, Leonore Kahn, died at 101 in 2005. Faith is survived by her brothers, Irving Kahn, 105, and Peter Keane, 101.