From Wall Street to Wave Hill, a leader who taught doing well, by doing good

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David Beim was a man of many words — and languages. In fact, he not only knew English, but was fluent in Spanish, French, German and even Russian.

But on a clear, March day in 2011, David found himself not in Spain, or France, or Germany, or even Russia. He was in Turkey. Istanbul, to be exact. It was the wedding of his son, Nick Beim, and his bride, Piraye.

With a wine glass in one hand, and a microphone in the other, David looked at his son and new daughter-in-law. He moved his gaze to his wife, Elizabeth, and then to the audience, filled primarily with Piraye’s Turkish family and friends, as well as a good New York contingent that flew more than 5,000 miles to get there.

And he smiled.

David raised the microphone to his mouth, and without any notes, he spent 10 minutes giving a toast about love and marriage. About welcoming Piraye into the family. About the importance of family.

Nothing unusual about it at all, except for one thing — David Beim gave the entire toast in near-perfect Turkish.

“He knew he would have to make a toast, and he just wanted to do it right,” Nick said. “He found a tutor at Columbia, and he learned Turkish. At least enough to make this toast. Everyone stood up to applaud afterward. It was amazing. I think it helped convince my in-laws that their daughter was marrying into a good family.”

David Beim put family first, education second, and serving the community a very close third. Everything else was, well, everything else. From his many years as a finance and economics professor at Columbia Business School, to his role in ensuring the long-time future of Wave Hill — it’s hard to look anywhere in the community and not see something positive David Beim played a role in creating or preserving.

But family and friends and those he influenced are now saying good-bye after David Beim passed away June 6. He was 79.

 

Thinking outside the box

When Michele Rossetti arrived at Wave Hill in 1996, she found the massive riverside property booming with a pair of beautiful mansions, gardens that people travel long distances to see first-hand, and a top-notch education program. Wave Hill was thriving, but it was just a few short years before when some feared there may not be a bright future for the gardens.

“The education program had really expanded, and we had the largest education staff the institution ever had,” said Rossetti, now Wave Hill’s vice president and chief operating officer. “It has almost as much funding in the budget as the horticulture department.”

Leading Wave Hill’s board was David Beim, who took on that role just as massive budget cuts under new mayor David Dinkins in 1990 forced a number of community programs, like Wave Hill, to drastically cut staff.

Peter Sauer, Wave Hill’s executive director at the time, grimly stated “This is like 1975 all over again,” referring to the last time community programs faced such threats.

But David Beim had an idea. For far too long, Wave Hill depended on the ebb and flow of city funding to keep it functioning. It was time to ramp up the “private” part of the public-private partnership.

“David had tremendous financial acumen,” said Buddy Stein, the former editor of The Riverdale Press who also served on the Wave Hill board with Beim. “He recognized that both city funding and private funding were unreliable, because you never knew when a foundation was going to say, ‘Oh, we’re going to go in a different direction.’ You never knew when the city would say, ‘Oh, gosh, we got this big budget problem.’”

David Beim’s solution? Establish an endowment. It’s Wave Hill’s rainy day fund, for a lack of a better term, putting millions of dollars aside to use when city contributions and private fundraising doesn’t meet expectations.

“The whole idea of creating an endowment and doing a campaign around that — that secures a non-profit’s future,” said Karen Meyerhoff, Wave Hill’s current president and executive director. “It’s the foundation for everything that comes after. And that was really a pivotal moment in the early days of our development.”

 

Remembering roots

David Beim was born in Minneapolis, the youngest of three children. His grandfather, Clinton Odell, was the founder of Burma-Shave, whose iconic billboards in the early 20th century welcomed the automobile onto our roads.

But David’s family didn’t have a lot of money. There were no plans for fancy schools, or expensive trips. Instead, David focused on a newspaper route — a route that would change his life.

“Phillips Exeter Academy had a program where they were trying to find bright kids with initiative,” Nick Beim said. Exeter is a private boarding school in New Hampshire that has been educating teenagers since 1781.

“They really wanted to find kids with paper routes because they got up early, were self-managing, and knew how to take on responsibility,” Nick said. “Going to Exeter really changed his life.”

His years at Exeter helped David achieve all his educational goals. He got into Stanford University in 1958, and then Oxford for his master’s degree in 1963.

David used that education for a successful investment banking career on Wall Street, first with The First Boston Corp., and later as an executive vice president of Export-Import Bank of the United States. But he never forgot his roots, serving many years as a trustee on Exeter’s board.

Like Wave Hill, David was looking out for the school’s future. But his solution was different for the boarding school — he wanted to ensure that it remained affordable.

“Affordability is an issue that a lot of schools like Exeter certainly grapple with,” said John Ettinger, a retired Manhattan attorney who served on the school’s board. “David came into the trustees and thought about the issue. He really did all the work on it, and it was truly revelatory.”

Balancing lower tuition with the need to remain the “Rolls-Royce” of schools was not an easy task, Ettinger said. And a lot of smart people spent years thinking about those issues.

“But David sat down as only David does, and he thought about it over a summer,” Ettinger said. “He came back after that and produced a paper that completely revolutionized how we through about the affordability issue.”

That convinced Exeter’s board to lower tuition, making it more affordable for what would ultimately become hundreds of students, Ettinger said.

“It was born out of a commitment to keep Exeter as affordable as possible,” Ettinger said, “to make sure other students had the same opportunities David did.”

 

Making a difference

David Beim leaves behind his wife Elizabeth, children Amy and Nick, and five grandchildren. They plan to host a public memorial service just as the leaves start turning for fall on Sept. 30 at Wave Hill.

David was so deeply a part of his family’s life, the loss has been especially hard.

“I started to get the sense in my early teens that he was doing very important things in the world,” Nick said. “All dads are role models to their kids. But no one comes close to him. He wore it all very lightly, and it was all very natural and seamless to him. People just loved him. We just loved him. And we’re going to miss him.”