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A philanthropy grandmaster

The philanthropist who brought chess to New York City’s public schools dies

Chess in the Schools Image from video

A philanthropy grandmaster
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A New York moment:

Chess is ubiquitous in New York City schools nowadays (Success Academy, a large charter school network in the city, requires students to take chess classes from kindergarten through second grade). That ubiquity is partly due to New York philanthropist Lewis Cullman, who recently died at age 100. In 1986, before the teaching of chess to youngsters as a life skill was popular, Lewis Cullman founded and funded a group called Chess in the Schools. The chess program teaches children at Title 1 schools, or schools serving primarily low-income populations.

“I believe that, given the opportunity, every child has the power to both ... succeed in life and help others,” Cullman had said. “But I also believe that many children are not given that opportunity.”

Lewis Cullman

Lewis Cullman Handout

Cullman thought chess developed important critical thinking skills. He himself was a player, having learned chess from his mother who played “correspondence chess” via post, according to Debbie Eastburn, who now heads Chess in the Schools.

Since 1986, Chess in the Schools has taught chess to more than 500,000 children in low-income neighborhoods in the city. This past school year, the program was in 48 New York City public schools, and taught chess to 6,000 children. The program has hosted 25 free chess tournaments around the city. One day I was walking in Central Park, and as I came around a bend I saw thousands of children playing chess in an open plaza—a Chess in the Schools tournament. It was beautiful.

One problem for the program now is partly based in Cullman’s generosity. His giving philosophy was to eschew a foundation where his wealth would sit in perpetuity, an arrangement he saw as not much more than a tax shelter. Instead he wanted to give his hundreds of millions away while he was alive. That leaves Chess in the Schools in a bind somewhat, but mainly because of his fundraising and networking on their behalf in the business world.

“He was our biggest ambassador to convince other people about the benefits of chess,” said Eastburn. Now she merely has to discover the next generation of philanthropists who want to fund chess in schools—maybe some New York public school alumni who learned chess will keep the momentum going.

Worth your time:

The New York Times has a wrenching feature that follows the youngest child, a 4-month-old, who was separated from his asylum-seeking father during the Trump administration’s family separation policy at the southern U.S. border. The story features Bethany Christian Services, which ended up with the boy’s case and placed him with a Christian foster family even as the caseworker tried to find the boy’s parents.

This week I learned:

Bats are pollinators of night flowers? Madison Square Park staff posted a photo of a bat here resting after a night of pollinating. Sometimes in this concrete jungle it’s easy to forget that the city has flowers that need pollinating.

A court case you might not know about:

Many of New York’s corruption cases have their root in state legislators’ ability to earn outside income, which often creates conflicts of interest. A state commission last year tried to place limits on outside income and gave legislators a pay raise so they could keep one job. But a recent court ruling said not only could legislators keep the commission pay raise, but they could keep their outside jobs. The ruling is “the worst of both worlds,” a watchdog group said. The state is considering an appeal.

Culture I am consuming:

Hannah Coulter, a novel by Wendell Berry.

Email me with tips, story ideas, and feedback. ebelz@wng.org

Emily Belz

Emily is a former senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and also previously reported for the New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City.



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