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Five years ago, some students at the acclaimed Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts had to take classes in hallways as the aging facility in downtown Dallas was stretched beyond its limits.
Once Neiman Marcus Group chairman Burt Tansky got a look at the students’ passion for the arts, he signed on to help raise $34 million toward a $60 million renovation and expansion of the historic public school.
This story first appeared in the October 6, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Booker T., as the school is called, is considered one of Dallas’ greatest educational assets and counts Norah Jones and Roy Hargrove among its alumni. It’s but one example of how Tansky and his wife, Rita, have supported charities over the years — and not only by writing hefty checks.
Tansky worked closely with I.D. Nash Flores 3rd, chairman of Booker T.’s building campaign, to encourage other chief executives to support the cause.
“He was very intellectually passionate about what education does for young people, and he was particularly passionate about this school because the students are so creative and have such aspirations,” Flores recalls.
“Every time I would get him exposed to some aspect of the school, whether it was dance or music or visual arts or drama, you could just see him light up,” he says. “These students come from poor families, rich families, split families — a polyglot of every nationality and ethnicity you can think of — and he thought it was wonderful to have that mix of society.”
In April 2008, Booker T.’s student body moved from temporary quarters back into an arts magnet that was 53 percent larger and fitted with slick facilities, including a 400-seat theater, an amphitheater, science labs and a dividable dance studio.
A central corridor in the modernist charcoal brick-and-glass expansion is named the Rita and Burt Tansky Atrium in honor of the couple’s $250,000 personal donation. At the other end of the addition, the Neiman Marcus Terrace evinces the company’s $225,000 gift.
Tansky has also helped generate millions of dollars to fund other projects in education, medicine and social services. He has dedicated time and money to Vogel Alcove in Dallas, Phoenix House in New York and Dallas, the National Jewish Hospital in Denver and the Children’s Hearing Institute in New York.
In mid-2007, he joined his sister, attorney Eva Tansky Blum, to cochair a $1 billion fund-raising drive for the University of Pittsburgh, their alma mater. They were halfway to that goal as of this September.
“Burt Tansky has a big heart,” declares Alan Gold, board member and past president of Vogel Alcove in Dallas. He credits Tansky with bringing well over $1 million to the charity, which provides nurturing day care, play therapy and educational programs to homeless infants and children.
“I can’t say enough about his generosity of time and interest,” Gold says. “He and his wife were given a tour of the Vogel Alcove, and it struck a chord in his heart to see how the 112 homeless children were being taken care of.”
Vogel Alcove also serves the homeless parents, who are primarily single mothers, by helping them find jobs, places to live and permanent child care. “Rarely does a person go back to being homeless,” Gold says.
Tansky greatly expanded the charity’s printed program for its annual benefit dinner by recruiting dozens of fashion firms to advertise, including Gucci, Prada, Estée Lauder, Manolo Blahnik and David Yurman.
His support of Phoenix House dates back 30 years, notes Mitchell S. Rosenthal, the New York psychiatrist who founded the organization in 1967 to help people overcome substance abuse.
“Burt is a man of enormous empathy,” Rosenthal observes. “When he met young people getting helped at Phoenix House and working hard to turn their lives around, he was very taken with it and became a wonderful ambassador for Phoenix House.”
He credits Tansky with raising at least $2 million and attracting a host of fashion luminaries to the charity including Rose Marie Bravo, Frank Doroff, Brendan Hoffman and Andrew Rosen.
Tansky’s 1994 move to Neiman Marcus in Dallas happened to coincide with the foundation’s expansion to the state.
“He became the first board chairman of Phoenix House in Texas, which is now operating not only in Dallas but also in Houston and in Austin,” Rosenthal says. Tansky was the linchpin for recruiting local social heavyweights to serve with him on the board, including the late mayor Annette Strauss and Steve Ivy, owner of Heritage Auction Galleries, the third-largest auction house in the world.
“Burt is by nature a generous person,” Rosenthal says. “He wants to help. If you go to Burt with a problem and it’s within his capacity, he’ll try and help you solve it.”
Tansky’s retirement from Neiman’s is enabling him to rejoin Phoenix House’ s New York board, Rosenthal notes.
The Jewish National Health Hospital in Denver, the world’s only hospital dedicated to respiratory, cardiac and immune disorders and research, bestowed its highest honor on Tansky in 1995 — the Arthur B. Lorber Award for Distinguished Service, for his civic and charitable contributions.
Tansky became a supporter of Jewish National in 1977. He and his wife established the Burton M. and Rita Tansky Fund for Research on the Influences of Viruses on the Immune System in 1988. That same year, he became a national trustee, and the hospital honored him with the National Jewish Humanitarian Award for his civic and charitable contributions. He served as chairman of Jewish National’s council of national trustees for two years, leading 150 trustees in raising money and promoting and advising the hospital.
Tansky has also been a key advocate of the Children’s Hearing Institute, which was founded in 1983 to help children with hearing loss through research, education and therapy. The institute presented Tansky with the Jule Styne Humanitarian Award in 2008, and he serves on its board.
Throughout his charitable work, Tansky never sought the spotlight for his good deeds, his associates note.
“He has been very, very reluctant to discuss his individual charitable efforts and has always insisted that the emphasis be on corporate giving,” says Ginger Reeder, vice president and spokeswoman for Neiman Marcus Group.
“He’s very modest,” Flores says. “I think he’s quite humble in that, unlike some people who really want it to be widely known. Some people beat their chest, but that’s not his thing.”
Says Gold, “He and his wife are both very good people, and we will miss them here in Dallas.”