Throughout his adult life, Gerald Cassidy has found ways to help others. On countless occasions, Cassidy has offered a hand to individuals in need, and his fortune has allowed him to give away millions to charity.
By Robert G. Kaiser
In early 1987 Gerald Cassidy offered a job to Elliott Fiedler, an assistant to Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee. Fiedler's salary on Capitol Hill was $40,000 a year, he remembered; Cassidy offered him $75,000, then paid him a $40,000 bonus at the end of his first year.
"I thought it was a mistake," Fielder said. He took the check back to Cassidy's bookkeeper and asked if a zero had been added by mistake. No, she said, that's your bonus. "I thought, wow," Fiedler remembered.
In the very first weeks on his new job in May 1987, Fiedler's son Jonathan, then 7, had to undergo surgery at Children's Hospital in Washington. Jonathan had Neurofibromatosis (NF), a genetic disorder of the nervous system; he needed a shunt to reduce pressure on his brain. "I had to take a few days off to be with him," Fiedler recounted. "I was nervous about how this would go down at my new office."
His nervousness was misplaced. Jonathan's first non-family visitor at Children's Hospital was Cassidy. "He came with a big present, balloons I think," Fiedler said. Cassidy stayed for an hour, buoying the boy's spirits. "It was typical Gerry Cassidy," Fiedler said. "Straight from his heart."
And it was the beginning of a relationship between Cassidy and Jonathan that continued for years. Now 26 and a student at the New York Law School, Jonathan Fiedler recalled happy times with Cassidy: being taken to lunch at the Old Ebbitt Grill, attending Orioles games at Camden Yards and Georgetown basketball games. "I wrote him handwritten letters, and he would reply, typewritten responses. . . . He gave me a Louisville Slugger bat with [Sen.] George Mitchell's autograph. He had a driver drive it out to my house. I still have it."
One of Cassidy's closest associates for many years was Carol Casey, whom he met when they both worked at the Democratic National Committee in 1973. Cassidy hired her as chief of research in the firm in 1984; later she was vice president for management, then for human resources. She traveled on client visits with Cassidy.
"I was in charge of buying presents for the children of employees for the Christmas party," a big annual event, she said. "He was very generous. . . . Every child got a present, and we always had a Santa to hand them out." The 2006 version of this lavish event took place Dec. 15 at the Westin Hotel-Embassy Row.
Casey saw the darker side of her boss on occasion -- actually on numerous occasions. His tantrums could reduce her to tears. "I was sort of a release valve, he would call me in and let off steam," Casey recalled. After a tantrum he would apologize, "He'd explain, 'How could you be upset about any of that? You know I didn't mean it.' I really think he went into a blackout during those rages, he really didn't know what he was doing. . . . He really is a good and decent man. His goal in life was not to make my life miserable, or anyone else's."
Cassidy has "a genuine kindness," said Jonathan Orloff, who joined the firm in 1986. He came from the staff of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, whom Cassidy considers a friend. "It's very important to Gerry to regard himself as . . . a good person, to look in the mirror and see a good person," Orloff observed. A mercurial figure himself, Orloff quit the Cassidy firm three years after joining it and now runs his own lobbying company. He keeps up with Cassidy. "I value my relationship with Gerry and would go to him for help."
Ask people who have worked with Cassidy for years who his personal friends are, and only a few names are mentioned. One is Tom Mathews, a founder the of Democratic direct-mail firm Craver, Mathews, Smith, a charming, easy-going Irishman who loves politics. In a long conversation he called Cassidy "a warm-hearted, funny, good friend. I liked him a lot." The past tense is revealing. Though several people said Mathews was one of Cassidy's very best friends, they rarely speak or see one another. "He is shy; he is lonely," Mathews said of his pal.
Once nearly 20 years ago, Mathews recounted, Cassidy asked his help to think of ways he might improve his public image. At the time Cassidy was concerned about his portrayal in several newspaper stories. Mathews suggested making Cassidy's good works better known, "his charitable and eleemosynary activities. But he didn't want it. He was too fastidious about that."
Cassidy himself said he had never publicized a charitable gift except when asked to do so -- by Villanova University, for example. As chairman of his alma mater's ambitious capital fund drive, Cassidy made a $5.25 million gift in 2004. One purpose of making that known was to encourage other large contributions. The drive Cassidy heads up is trying to raise $300 million for the Catholic school founded by members of the Augustinian order. Cassidy is devoted to the school for helping him find ways to finance a college education that was his ticket out of the rough streets of Brooklyn and Queens.
Mathews and others recounted that Cassidy has long been a supporter of So Others May Eat, the social service agency for the poor and homeless run for a quarter century by The Rev. John Adams, a charismatic priest well-known in Washington. Each Christmas for many years, said Bill Cloherty, an early Cassidy sidekick, Cassidy sent a note to his employees and consultants saying he would match any contribution they made to SOME.
"Gerry has been extremely supportive of SOME for many years," Father Adams said in an interview. "He's been one of our major contributors." Asked to say how much Cassidy had given, Adams said he would have to ask Cassidy's permission to reveal any numbers. Cassidy declined to give permission.
Cassidy has been generous to the American-Ireland Fund, established in 1976 by Irish-Americans who were mimicking American Jews by creating a charity to support their kin in Northern Ireland and the Republic. In a quarter century the fund has raised more than $300 million, a goodly amount of it from Cassidy.
Another Cassidy cause is the Children's Inn at N.I.H., a residence facility for the families of children being treated for cancer and other serious diseases at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda. Cassidy regularly buys multiple tables at the Inn's annual fundraising gala.
In October, the George and Eleanor McGovern Library was dedicated at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, S.D., their alma mater. Cassidy had helped raise money for the library and gave $100,000 himself.
Cassidy has long had an intense relationship with the Catholic Church, presumably including significant financial support, though he does not discuss this. For much of his adult life he has attended mass every day. Friends say his religious convictions shape his philanthropy, and also his belief that it should not be discussed publicly.
Casey described Cassidy as "very, very generous; he gave away a lot of money. And he didn't do it for the recognition at all. "He finds that kind of centers him."
Cassidy began helping people long before he was rich. Charles Luckey was a poor teenager in Fort Myers, Fla., when he and Cassidy met in 1968. Cassidy was then a newly minted lawyer, working for South Florida Migrant Legal Services, trying to solve legal problems for black and brown migrant workers (see chapter 2). Charles Luckey's mother, an African American, picked vegetables around Immokalee, as on occasion did Luckey himself. He met Cassidy while working on a black woman's bold campaign for city council in Fort Myers. Cassidy was trying to help the campaign, too.
In a recent interview, Luckey, now the principal of Harns Marsh Elementary School in Fort Myers, said Cassidy one day called him out of the blue to ask what his plans were for college. He wasn't sure. Cassidy "was more helpful than my counselors" in high school, Luckey remembered. "He got me books on colleges. He helped me with the applications. . . . I couldn't believe that this attorney was interested in me," Luckey said. "He was tremendously compassionate, very supportive in every way. That's what I was most impressed with."
Unbeknown to Luckey, Cassidy also contacted Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., a highly-ranked, private liberal arts college, to recommend the young Floridian. "I was able to get a full scholarship to Macalester for four years, but I graduated in three," Luckey said. When interviewed in December, he hadn't spoken to Cassidy in decades and knew nothing of his successes in Washington.
Cassidy himself has decided that individual acts of charity give the greatest satisfaction. "It's really the individual things you do, the individuals you help," he said in an interview.
Sometimes Cassidy's generous gestures are related to his loyalty, something his friends speak about often. Chuck Dolan, for example, a public relations man who worked at Cassidy & Associates from 1983 to 1990, recalled that when House Speaker Tip O'Neill retired from Congress in 1987, he asked Cassidy to hire Jim Rowen, an Irishman from East Boston who had been an aide to O'Neill for many years and was out of a job.
"Gerry hired him," Dolan recounted. "Jimmy commuted to Washington Monday to Thursday, like a congressman. Gerry gave him an office, but not much to do. He was fun to have around."
Speaker O'Neill's daughter Susan O'Neill, an event-planner and fund-raiser for good causes in Washington, confirmed the story. "Jimmy served a purpose, too," she said. "He had relationships with people. But certainly, Gerry [hired him] because Dad wanted him to have an income and to have something to do."
Said Susan O'Neill, "I think there's so much anonymous charitable giving by Gerry that you could never know it all," adding: "I'm one of the few non-lobbyists in town that work with the lobbyists. I know them from a different perspective. He's always been phenomenally generous."
One of Cassidy's favorite employees was Fraser Barron, who had worked in Robert F. Kennedy's presidential campaign, and served as a sort of research wizard for Cassidy. Cassidy credits Baron with predicting many months in advance that the Republicans would win control of Congress is 1994. Concerned that Barron was right, Cassidy intensified negotiations to acquire a Republican lobbying firm, Boland & Madigan, before the 1994 election -- which the Republicans swept."
"Gerry kept Barron on the payroll really for years when he was sick with cancer and not doing anything for the firm," recalled Dale Leibach, a long-time employee. When he was dying, Barron asked Leibach to talk to his parish priest about his desire for a high funeral mass. This required hiring musicians and other expensive accoutrements, the priest told Leibach -- someone would have to pay. Someone did. "Gerry paid for all of it," Leibach said.
Washington Post research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.
Tomorrow: A different kind of Cassidy giving.
Key Related Materials
An overview of Gerald Cassidy's life and career.
A "cast of characters" in the life and career of Gerald Cassidy.
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