A Memorial of Service–Remembering an Extraordinary Man

I attended a memorial service last week for a man who lived an extraordinary life cut short by a fatal brain cancer at 75. tnMStraus_102108It was at the same time a memorial service and a memorial of service. His name is—and I say ‘is’ not ‘was’ –because it was clear by the remarks of each speaker who took the podium that he is an ‘is,’ not a ‘was’ in their hearts and minds. His name is Melville Straus, but everyone who knows/knew him called him Mickey.

Back in the 1980s, I was Director of Development for American Ballet Theatre. Mickey was an officer of the Board of Trustees, and early in my eight years there, ascended to the Chairmanship. In New York social circles this was a plumb of a role, especially since ballet was in its golden era and we had Mikhail Baryshnikov as our Artistic Director. Mickey and I were an effective team, raising money for the company all over America, but with special emphasis on the two communities he knew best—New York City and the Hamptons. Everyone loved Mickey, even though they knew that when they saw him coming, he was about to hit them up for a contribution to ABT. Thanks to him we had a roster of donors that included most of Wall Street’s brightest stars.

For someone in my position, Mickey led by example; my professional staff and I  had enormous respect for his drive and zeal. He inspired us to push harder, try repeatedly, and never accept ‘no’ for a final answer.

Mickey, as one speaker put it, lived on a different clock. He packed thirty-six hours of things in the time that the rest of us spend twenty-four. A typical Saturday in the Hamptons for Mickey was a power breakfast, followed by tennis with a foursome of future billionaires, then a power lunch. He’d then sit out at the pool reading prospectus after prospectus. By four p.m., he was on the road plowing through three cocktail parties before a power dinner. During the workweek he’d call me once or twice a day, and often the ABT offices on his way uptown where he’d make a brief stop at home, slip into a tuxedo, and head out to one or two galas. He was relentless in everything he did, whether it was investing other people’s money, raising funds for ABT or later for Guild Hall in Southampton, or vacationing.  Mickey  packed three lives into one. He did not die at 75. He died at 225 years of age.

Mickey and wife, Leila
Mickey and wife, Leila

While Mickey did so many things related to his work or his philanthropic commitments, he apparently found generous amounts of time for his wife and children, as was evident by their loving words. I have no idea how he did all this or where he found the energy..

One of the speakers read the following poem by E.E. Cummings. It’s called ’78.’  I thought I would share it with you:



rain or hail

sam done

the best he kin

till they digged his hole

:sam was a man

stout as a bridge

rugged as a bear

slickern a weazel

how be you

(sun or snow)

gone into what

like all them kings

you read about

and on him sings

a whippoorwill;


heart was big

as the world aint square

with room for the devil

and his angels too


what may be better

or what may be worse

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