Hard-Earned Success Inspires the Height of Generosity

Leonard Tow rose from poverty to business tycoon and now devotes himself to his family's foundation.
He belonged to the Longfellows Club, a group of 6-foot or taller male Brooklyn College students. She hung out with the female Hi Hites, a club of tall young women, although she wasn't tall enough to be a member. They met in the basement lunchroom in Boylan Hall.

It was 1949 when Claire Schneider (class of 1952) and Leonard Tow (1950) had their first date at the Park Circle Roller Skating Rink. They've never looked back, but they're giving back with generous gifts to Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

"I came from dirt-poor poverty, and I saw lots of needs around me that were going unfulfilled," says Tow. His parents, Russian immigrants, and he lived in a single room behind their small store in Bensonhurst. During the Great Depression, they often waited for their first sale to buy breakfast. "Claire came from a family barely able to scratch out a living on two small salaries," he says. "Together we got lucky in business and built a substantial nest egg. We decided the best use of our money was to give it away."

Tow got a master's and a doctorate at Columbia University, conducted research in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and taught economics at Hunter and Brooklyn Colleges and economic geography at Columbia University's Graduate School of Business.

But after earning his doctorate, he confronted the reality of having three children on a single salary. "I couldn't find a job that fed my family in the teaching world," he says. He found work with Anthony Marshall, Brooke Astor's son, in his African Research and Development Co.

Tow and two colleagues then went out on their own. "We did a lot of wild things. We owned some Broadway theaters and produced some Broadway shows, and did some work in Europe, Africa and India."

In the mid-1960s he was a management consultant at what is now Deloitte & Touche. One of his clients was TelePrompTer Corp., which hired him to grow its tiny cable TV subsidiary. Cable was in its infancy, and over seven or eight years, he built it from 50,000 subscribers to more than one million, making it the nation's largest cable TV company at the time.

After a proxy fight, TelePrompTer was taken over by Jack Kent Cooke, a philanthropist whose fellowships have helped exceptional students at CUNY and other universities. "I worked for Jack for about a year and a half, building the company's cable TV inventory larger and larger," Tow says. "And then I decided in 1973 to try and do it for myself."

With $22,000 in equity capital and a $5 million line of credit, Tow started Century Communications Corp. in partnership with Century Insurance.He bought anemic cable companies and made them profitable. Century prided itself on a family atmosphere, where any worker could talk with management. Claire Tow helped set the tone as senior vice president of human resources.

In 1988, Century Communications began acquiring cellular telephone licenses and building a cellular company that grew into Centennial Cellular. In 1989, he joined the board of Citizens Utilities, which offered telephone, gas, electric, water and wastewater services; he became its chair, CEO and in 1991 CFO and later merged Citizens' cellular operations into Centennial's.

In 1999, when Century was the nation's fifth largest cable company, Tow sold it and Centennial Cellular. In 2004, he sold his position in Citizens Utilities. At age 76, he devoted himself to the Tow Foundation, which he and his wife had founded in 1988. Its many grants include the pediatric oncology pavilion at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; the Center for Motor Neuron Biology and Disease at Columbia University Medical Center (Claire Tow has Lou Gehrig's Disease); juvenile justice; the arts, including Caramoor and Lincoln Center, where a theater named for Claire Tow will rise atop the Vivian Beaumont Theater.

Among its higher-education activities, the Tow Foundation, run by his daughter, Emily Tow Jackson, funds internships, scholarships and grants for students and faculty at Brooklyn College.

The Tow Foundation offered Brooklyn College a $10 million challenge grant for a new performing arts center, with the intent of attracting top theorists, practicing artists, students and faculty for collaborative work in state-of-the-art facilities. In response, the college raised an additional $15 million from public and private sources.

"The ongoing commitment and remarkable generosity of Leonard and Claire Tow will leave an enduring legacy at Brooklyn College," says President Karen L. Gould. "Their vision for a performing arts center will soon result in a beautiful facility that will have a profound effect on the quality and vibrancy of the performing arts on our campus and for the surrounding community."

A chance conversation with CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein led to a $3-million challenge grant to the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, to be matched one-for-one. Tow had mentioned a possible grant to help Columbia's journalism school find ways to allow serious journalism to remain profitable in the digital age.

"Matt asked if I'd consider the new CUNY School of Journalism, which I didn't know about," Tow says. Goldstein took him to meet Dean Stephen B. Shepard.

"I liked what I saw, so we set up a challenge to Columbia and City University to present their ideas," Tow says. Columbia wanted to revamp its curriculum. CUNY favored entrepreneurial journalism. "We decided to fund them both."

Shepard says Tow has visited the school many times. "The grant is for a new Center for Journalistic Innovation. We're looking at new business models, like our hyperlocal news project in Fort Greene [Brooklyn]. And we have seven graduates who are incubating new products, so it's very exciting."

"It's been a good ride," says Tow. "I'm still having a good time."