And How It Changed My Life © 2015 Ronnyjane Goldsmith
I wrote my obituary over 4 decades ago. Little did I know it would be the start of a journey I wouldn’t have missed for the world.
I was not one of those fortunate students who wrote under their yearbook photo – My ambition is to be a Lawyer, a Doctor, or the First Woman President. As a 17 year old without financial resources or family support, my ambition was limited by the circumstances of my life. That is until I wrote my obituary.
Where my resume recounted my past, my obituary would set the path for my future.
Where my resume listed the jobs I held, my obituary would chronicle the importance of public service, the opportunities opened by being an entrepreneur and the personal satisfaction of philanthropy.
Where my resume was built on effort and courage, my obituary would give my life purpose and direction.
As I begin my last act on this stage, I follow the path set by my obituary more than forty years ago. That path continues to provide my life with purpose and direction taken for granted by many and absent from the lives of many more – notably today’s youth caught in a hopeless cycle of poverty or the empty entitlements of the millennial generation. The simple exercise of writing their obituary today could change their lives forever. It did mine.
Ronnyjane Goldsmith – Public Servant. Entrepreneur. Philanthropist.
Her Obituary Changed Her Life and Her Times
(To be placed in the Sunday New York Times immediately after my death)
Ronnyjane Goldsmith died on (a date sometime in the future). She wrote her obituary every year determined to make it Sunday New York Times worthy. And in her quest to live up to her obituary, she challenged norms, confronted power brokers and changed the landscape of her times.
Goldsmith began her career as a public servant, holding appointed positions in Pennsylvania, Maryland and California. As one of the first professional staff hired by the PA Legislature she delivered unbiased advice to a politically divided legislature. As Fiscal Advisor to Baltimore City Council she insured that the taxpayers of the City were properly represented despite the intentions of city officials to the contrary. As Director of Finance for the City of Berkeley she saved employee pension plans from insolvency and city and pension fund investments from default. And in Los Angeles, as the largest issuer of municipal bonds in the U.S., she unraveled bond deals that enriched consultants while costing taxpayers and bond holders millions of dollars. Hired as a “fixer” often as a result of grand jury recommendations, she confronted issues like pay to play contracting and corrupt municipal borrowing practices decades before the extent of their cost to the American taxpayer became newsworthy.
The fiscal policies she advanced, well documented by newspapers throughout her career, brought to light conflicts of interest in the public sector that cost taxpayers billions of dollars while enriching the coffers of elected officials, private consultants and labor unions. Goldsmith exposed self-dealing rampant in the public sector by prohibiting the award of management consulting contracts to outside auditors and barring financial advisors from simultaneously serving as municipal bond underwriters. And she attacked the lack of transparency in municipal finance by requiring the disclosure of pension plan liabilities in municipal financial statements making clear to the taxpayer and the bond holder the true cost of labor negotiations and legislative action.
Goldsmith will also be remembered for the retirement and benefit plans she designed including The Pennsylvania Senior Citizens Property Tax and Rent Assistance Program that has directed more than $200 billion to programs for elderly citizens since 1972; The Baltimore City Variable Benefit Retirement Plan that increased benefits for retirees and beneficiaries by up to 17% without increasing plan or employee costs; The City of Berkeley Supplemental Retirement and Income Plan that preserved and expanded benefits for City of Berkeley employees and Friends of AC Transit that since inception has provided over 2000 loans totally more than $1.5 million to employees facing unforeseen and catastrophic life events.
Most surprising, unlike many of her colleagues, Goldsmith did not benefit from any plan she developed during her years in public service.
While Goldsmith’s career as a public servant covered several states and the span of many decades, her successes had two common themes. She prevailed at great risk to herself and her career in spite of the ceaseless wrath of politicians and consultants who benefited personally and politically from maintaining the status quo. And millions of people who never knew her name benefited from the programs she designed.
In addition to her public responsibilities, Goldsmith found time to teach at Temple University, Lehigh University and Johns Hopkins University. While still in her twenties she was a candidate for the State Legislature in Pennsylvania. Her slogan as a candidate was “Her place is in the House”, reflecting and challenging the norms of the times.
Goldsmith left public service after 25 years to become an entrepreneur. When asked why she was leaving public service, Goldsmith explained only part in jest “because all my references are dead, indicted or incarcerated.”
As an entrepreneur, Goldsmith built a private investment management business with close to $100 million dollars under management. As in the public sector, her solutions for private clients were simple and elegant and many times at odds with prevailing practices. Realizing immediately the inherent conflict between what benefits the advisor and the client, she refused to recommend proprietary products that benefited the advisor at the expense of the client, complex investments with hidden fees and low returns and annuities that only enriched the advisor when municipal bonds provided higher income to the client at a much lower cost. Once asked to explain the secret of her success, her answer was again simple and elegant: No crazy clients. No dead assets. No proprietary products. Throughout her career in private finance she remained critical of an industry where a person’s lack of education or experience could not be held against them when hiring. The outcome as she described it was “an industry dominated by very bad men in very good suits.”
While critical of the financial services industry Goldsmith used her time as an entrepreneur to establish her place in philanthropy. For every client referred to her, she made a donation to charity. Over the decades, her donations grew to include programs providing medical assistance to children without hope; programs improving access to higher education for children without family support or financial resources; and programs to preserve our national heritage.
In 2006 Goldsmith established the SIG Fund at the Smile Train. As a result of her donations, over 300 children received cleft palate operations, giving them new smiles and a second chance at life. In 2012, Goldsmith became a founding donor of Wonderwork. Through her support each month three children received life changing medical assistance. As a result, by December 2017 over 175 children had received the gift of sight.
In 2007 Goldsmith endowed the SIG Scholarship at Temple University so that the dreams and professional aspirations of students who lost their parents might come true. If it wasn’t for the financial assistance Temple University provided to her, Goldsmith could not have attended college. Nor would she have been able to take advantage of the professional opportunities she could only dream about as a 17 year old without financial resources or family support. SIG stands for Straw into Gold, a moniker used to describe Goldsmith’s work in the public sector.
In memory of her father, Goldsmith endowed The Abraham D. Goldsmith SIG Scholarship at The City College of New York in 2010. The scholarship is awarded to outstanding students whose parents came to America seeking a better life for their children.
In 2011 Goldsmith established the 57 Cent Fund at Temple University. The fund is named in memory of Hattie May Wiatt, who died in 1886 at 5 years of age and left Dr. Russell Conwell 57 cents, the seed money used to establish Temple University. In 2018 Goldsmith established the Delancey Street Fund at The City College of New York. The fund is named after the street of the same name in New York City that gave immigrants to America a chance for a better life. The Delancey Street Fund like The 57 Cent Fund provides assistance to students without financial resources who are facing catastrophic life events.
In 2018, Goldsmith contracted to write Temple Made, the first in a series of books profiling alumni who have reached the pinnacle of their professions. Proceeds from Temple Made are dedicated to The 57 Cent Fund at Temple University. Proceeds from the second book in the Made Series, CCNY Made, are dedicated to The Delancey Street Fund at The City College of New York.
Goldsmith’s affiliation with The National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. began in 2012 when she adopted the portrait of Lucretia Mott on display at The Gallery. Lucretia Mott, abolitionist, suffragette and founder of Swarthmore College, established the Village of La Mott in Montgomery County PA where Mott donated the land and built homes for slaves escaping from the South through the Underground Railroad. La Mott is located in the former 154th Legislative District, where in her youth, Goldsmith had been a candidate for the State Legislature.
In 2014, Goldsmith adopted the Rembrandt Peale portrait of George Washington, the first President of the United States, patriot and philanthropist.
In 2016, Goldsmith adopted the portrait of Alexander Hamilton, author of the Federalist Papers and the first Secretary of the U.S. Treasury. Hamilton’s portrait is on the front of the $10 bill. In 2016, it was announced that Lucretia Mott, whose portrait was adopted by Goldsmith in 2012, is one of five women whose face will grace the back of the new $10 bill.
Goldsmith sponsored several exhibits at the National Portrait Gallery including: The Art of Elaine de Kooning (2015); The Face of Battle (2017); The Sweat of Their Face (2017); The American Presidents (2018) and Votes for Women (2019). In 2017 she was named to the Host Committee of the Smithsonian representing the National Portrait Gallery. In 2018, Goldsmith provided support for the acquisition of the earliest known photograph of a U.S. President, John Quincy Adams, for the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery.
Ronny, as she was known to her friends, was born in New York City in 1947, the daughter of Abraham D. Goldsmith, a corporate tax attorney and Sara Sussman. Her father died when she was 7 and her mother, diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic took her own life. Goldsmith described her parent’s influence on her life with a note of irony writing, “I fortunately inherited my parent’s assets and more fortunately overcame their liabilities.”
Goldsmith attended 11 public schools in 12 years including four high schools in three years, graduating with no transcript having a full year of grades and no permanent address. She parlayed a $500 loan into a full scholarship, a Ford Foundation fellowship and a B.A., M.A. and Ph.D.-but not without a battle.
At a time when options available to women were limited to marriage, teaching or nursing, Goldsmith was one of the first women to be awarded a Ph.D. from Temple University, College of Liberal Arts, but only after the College refused to read her dissertation and denied her the degree for ten years because she was a woman. Although she never used the title Dr., Goldsmith often said the two things of which she was most proud were finally being awarded her Ph.D. and teaching herself how to drive a stick shift, not necessarily in that order.
Goldsmith was inducted into the Temple University Gallery of Success as one of 34 out of 250,000 living alumni who distinguished themselves in their professional careers. In 2011 she was named to the Board of Visitors of the College of Liberal Arts. But these honors did not stop her from speaking out against school policies and actions she felt were not in the best interest of students, alumni and the university. When Goldsmith was warned of the risks of going against the university administration, she responded with characteristic self-less determination–“What is the worst that can happen?”
While Goldsmith was romantically linked to several high level elected officials she chose not to marry. At the time of her death, she owned homes in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
The proceeds of Goldsmith’s estate are bequeathed to the scholarships and charities she supported during her lifetime.
Consistent with her wishes, Goldsmith was cremated and her ashes disposed of without ceremony over the Golden Gate Bridge.
She is survived by many good friends.
And her obituary as her life was Sunday New York Times worthy.