The Extraordinary Life and Work of Julian Reiss

by Luke Cyphers | History, October 2022

Julian Reiss, center. Photograph courtesy of Peter Reiss

There are lives so well lived, and Julian Reiss lived such a life, that the most basic question is the most difficult to answer: where to begin?

Reiss, born to great wealth in Chicago, struck out on his own to become a self-made entrepreneur in the Adirondacks. Though essentially bedridden for years in his early 20s as he fought tuberculosis in Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, he recovered to become a tireless presence in regional commerce, state government and the Catholic Church. A successful businessman during a time when management and labor were often violently adversarial, Reiss’s Northland Motors—with shops in Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake—was a pioneer in employee profit-sharing. Despite his establishment roots and his adopted home base in the mostly white North Country, he was a civil-rights crusader who helped pave a way to equal employment rights for New Yorkers of all races, including the baseball great Jackie Robinson—who broke the Major Leagues’ color line 75 years ago. The Reiss legacy persists not just in history books, but in a summer program for New York City youth.

Outside of his work, and his works, Reiss (pronounced “rice”) was an avid skier, a prize-winning sailor, and an ambidextrous tennis player. He was a self-taught pilot; he built his own radio; and he delivered the last five of his and his wife’s six children at home.

All of that, and he founded Santa’s Workshop, too.

We need to start somewhere, though, and Julian Reiss’s most resonant legacy sprang from his fight for equality for all New Yorkers—a fight that reverberated across the nation.

The year was 1945, and New York State had just passed the Ives-Quinn Anti-Discrimination Act, the first in the nation to prohibit employment discrimination based on race, religion or national origin.

To investigate claims under the law, the state set up the State Commission Against Discrimination, or SCAD, and from its inception in July 1945 through most of 1947, Reiss served as commissioner. In interpreting the goals of the commission, Reiss leaned toward persuading businesses to change their ways rather than prosecuting them. That drew criticism from some in New York’s Civil Rights Movement, who longed for a more combative stance. Still, in its first year, according to a 1950 Cornell Law Review article, SCAD investigated 283 complaints of discrimination against companies and found 122 of the complaints valid, ordering the employers to eliminate the discriminatory practices.

In one instance, in 1945, Reiss showed up personally to deliver a subpoena to the Hotel Saranac, which had a policy of refusing to rent rooms to Black customers. The hotel got the message and changed its policy.

One of the most prominent cases involved New York’s telephone companies, which had refused to hire Black women as operators. SCAD called out the companies for discrimination, leading to integration of those workplaces. The phone companies’ fears of alienating white workers proved unfounded.

The mere existence of the law, and SCAD, had an effect across industries. As baseball historian Jules Tygiel pointed out, Reiss and his fellow SCAD commissioners likely played a key role in the integration of Major League Baseball.

MLB’s color line had held fast through the early part of the century and two World Wars, excluding Black players from the game.

As soon as the Ives-Quinn law was passed in 1945, some New Yorkers began to lobby for the state’s three Major League teams—the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants and New York Yankees—to be prosecuted under the new statute. Political candidates ran on platforms promising to use Ives-Quinn and SCAD to force integration on the team owners. By October, SCAD laid down a gauntlet of its own, demanding the three owners sign a pledge not to discriminate. “When all three owners refused to do so,” according to a 1998 Marquette Law Review article on baseball integration, “calls for legal action intensified.”

Unknown to Reiss and his co-commissioners, Brooklyn Dodgers general manager and part-owner Branch Rickey had in August secretly signed Jackie Robinson, a former three-sport athlete at UCLA, a World War II veteran and a star in the Negro Leagues. There is speculation that Rickey wanted to wait until January of 1946 to make the announcement, but the demands of Reiss and the SCAD commission turned up political heat, and the Dodgers announced the signing on October 23, 1945.

Rickey insisted the new legal climate had nothing to do with the signing of a Black player, which he said had been in the works well before the law passed. And indeed, the Dodgers quickly signed four more Black players in 1946, including all-time Dodger greats Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe. But there’s no question the law and the actions of the commission would have eventually forced the hand of the New York teams. Ironically, as Tygiel noted, the Dodgers’ signings took the heat off the other Gotham squads, and the Giants and Yankees continued their whites-only rosters for years after the law passed.

Historians have debated whether an aggressively prosecutorial SCAD would have made more progress. But it wasn’t Reiss’s way. “My father didn’t want to hold an ax over people and tell them to be tolerant,” says his son, Peter. “He felt that he could intellectually convince people that it’s the right thing to do. He really didn’t want to use force, because he thought if people felt forced, they would always be agitating against it.”

Reiss’s service with SCAD helped earn him the James J. Hoey Award for Interracial Justice in 1947, a prestigious honor at the time given out by a New York City Catholic civil-rights group. In his acceptance speech, Reiss declared that personal charity couldn’t substitute for public policy. The law was vital in eliminating injustice. “We cannot deny the Negro the opportunity to work, to live in a decent home, to acquire an education,” he said, “and then give him charity in its place.”

The reception to Reiss’s efforts wasn’t always so warm. As a boy, Peter Reiss had a tennis match at the Lake Placid Club canceled when a club muckety-muck announced that the family was no longer welcome, their membership rescinded.

Some of Julian’s own kin fiercely objected to his civil-rights stances. According to Peter, that included Julian’s father, Jacob Reiss, who told his son he had “embarrassed the whole family” for his work with SCAD.

Julian Reiss was a product of generational wealth. His great-grandfather Clemens Reiss amassed a fortune in coal and steamships, and Julian’s father did even better, starting a tailoring company that pioneered mass-production techniques to cut ready-made suits, making himself among the 100 richest men in the country in the 1920s. The factory building in Chicago still stands, and is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places for its role in upgrading the clothing industry from the often barbaric sweatshop model.

Julian grew up in Manhattan amid all those riches and attended Georgetown and Fordham Universities. But there was always a wobble to his path. He was late returning to one semester because he worked on a tramp steamer so he could see the world on his summer vacation.

And as a young man he showed his fierce idealism in the face of his family’s upper-class mores, marrying Daisy, a Bronx woman far below the Reisses’ elevated social stratum.

Shortly after his marriage, TB stopped him short, leaving him unable to do much but lie around and try to heal on a convalescent porch in the Adirondacks. “He was essentially disabled for a good five years of his life,” Peter Reiss says.

In time, the treatment took, and Reiss never looked back. As Peter puts it, “I don’t think he ever lived an idle moment.”

Indeed, it is hard to find any over the course of the rest of his life. There was the auto business at Northland Motors, which made him a fixture in the Adirondack business community. As president of the Chamber of Commerce in 1928, he helped bring the 1932 Olympics to Lake Placid. Northland also made him good money—and through his pioneering profit-sharing plan begun in 1950, allowed the same for his employees.

There was Santa’s Workshop, for which Reiss helped procure land, as well as the skills of legendary Adirondack artist Arto Monaco, to build what’s often acknowledged as the first theme park in the country, more than half a decade before Walt Disney scaled up the idea.

There was The Flying Trio, a follow-up to his work on SCAD. The trio consisted of Reiss; Archibald Glover, an African-American engineer in New York City’s public works department; and the Reverend Joseph Cantillon, an administrator at Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City. The threesome used Reiss’s plane to barnstorm colleges and universities across the Northeast, giving speeches denouncing discrimination and pushing for more integration of campuses.

Flying suited Reiss, a man perpetually in a hurry. He used the plane not only for civic and political work, but for charity, starting a North Pole toy lift for underprivileged children at Christmas. Though the skies were not always friendly, he was charmed, all the way through his final flight. On a chilly Halloween night in 1958, Reiss was returning from Pennsylvania, where he picked up his daughter, Patricia, from college. They hit bad weather, and the plane iced up and crashed in a High Peaks forest outside Lake Placid. Reiss was battling the cancer that would eventually take his life, but father and child survived the crash unscathed, and after a chilly night, bushwhacked their way to the Northville-Placid trail and walked to civilization under their own power.

For all of his achievements, Julian Reiss’s most lasting mark on the Adirondacks is his foundation, which funds summer camps and youth programs in Lake Placid. Through his civil rights work, Reiss saw the glaring inequities faced by poor urban kids of color, many of them immigrants, and used his connections in the Catholic Church to get a camp up and running.

In true Julian Reiss fashion, the camp was a bold startup, full of adjustments on the fly. “One thing about my grandfather: he was always open to new ideas, and he was entrepreneurial,” says Martha Reiss Acworth, a Reiss Foundation board member.

The camp sprouted from a project that didn’t quite work out: Old McDonald’s Farm. Started in 1953 in the wake of the early success of Santa’s Workshop, the farm was another amusement park featuring, well, farm animals, on an approximately 300-acre plot with access to Lake Placid. It, too, drew throngs in its first couple of years, and even opened a ski area on the site, but Peter Reiss says the care and feeding of the animals over the long winter hiatus didn’t make financial sense, so Julian switched gears.

The summer program, known as Camp Monserrate, initially started as a way to allow impoverished city boys a respite from the rough midcentury streets of New York, but it soon shifted to an education-focused mission. “There can be a summer lag, and you’ve gotta keep the math up,” Acworth says. “The camp really became about academic, athletic and spiritual leadership.”

Julian’s son Paul—who earned a Harvard Ph.D. and had a long career in university administration—took over the camp after his father died in 1959, and during the next several decades sharpened the focus while expanding the foundation’s programs, including starting a girls’ camp. That evolution has continued, largely under the guidance of Paul’s children, sons Paul and John and daughter Acworth. Today there are weeks-long overnight camps for city boys and girls, day camps for Lake Placid kids, and camps for Families First, which helps local families whose children are dealing with mental health issues.

“In the last 10 years, we’ve really had to evolve the foundation mission to be relevant for modern needs,” Acworth says. “Yes, my grandfather was very passionate about the inner city, but he was also very passionate about the Lake Placid community. In terms of evolving, there were opportunities right in front of us.”

Acworth estimates the Reiss Foundation facilities serve around 500 children and families every summer.

Not that there’s been any neglect of the original programs; the facility hosts a yearly retreat for former campers, who use the time to plan their ongoing Foresight Project—a mentoring and college prep program for other city kids.

Last year was the 75th anniversary of the Ives-Quinn act. The law and several successor pieces of legislation live on, enforced by the New York State Division of Human Rights. But commemorations of the 1945 law, and of SCAD, were lost amid the pandemic, something that disappoints Peter Reiss.

Peter remains undaunted, though, and works to keep the memory of his father’s work alive. He’s assigned a young family member to comb through state archives and unearth details about SCAD that the world may have missed the first time around. “I found on my father’s calendar a date that he wrote in: ‘Meeting with the Major League Baseball teams at the New York Athletic Club,’” Peter says. “I’m sure he had a meeting over Jackie Robinson with the baseball teams, and I’m sure he wrote up a report on it, so that should be in the archives.”

Whatever turns up in the old files, Julian Reiss’s work is impossible to forget, because the results are all around us. There are people who went to colleges they were previously banned from, workers with job opportunities that had previously been denied, and inner-city and rural children with better outcomes than they would have had otherwise. Reiss and his descendants have created legacies that will serve us all, if we are wise enough to preserve them.

“Julian Reiss died well before I was born,” Acworth says. “But I feel like I knew him so well. My work at the Julian Reiss Foundation is in service to what he embodied. And he embodied more than a passion for anti-discrimination. His adventurous side, his entrepreneurial side, his character—it’s all about him being such a tremendous inspiration.”   

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