Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Seth S. Faison, a Brooklyn native who led efforts to revive and strengthen the borough through its institutions, died peacefully at his home on Pierrepont Street on March 7. He was 93. Known to many in Brooklyn Heights as a convivial storyteller and a warm neighbor, he played a decisive if behind-the-scenes role in strengthening institutions that he knew to be essential for a flourishing culture.
Faison became chairman of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in 1966, when it was suffering from declining audiences, moribund programming and a convoluted administrative structure that was draining its resources. Faison was asked to close it, in order to minimize liability. Instead, he recognized its potential and decided to try to launch its transformation. He made a daring decision to hire an un-known, Harvey Lichtenstein, as executive director. Lichtenstein had no management experience and a short resume at the Ford Foundation, but he had an energetic vision for a vibrant center of theater and dance that captured the adventurous mood of the 1960s. Faison overruled objections from his board and supported Lichtenstein, and their partnership succeeded brilliantly. Faison stepped down as chairman in 1972, while Lichtenstein led BAM for more than 30 years. Lichtenstein died in February 2017.
Faison served on innumerable boards, including as chairman of the Brooklyn Hospital Center from 1995 to 2005, ably steering it through rough times. He had served as a trustee since 1963 at Brooklyn Hospital, and later served on the New York State Hospital Trustees Association, of which he was chairman from 1995-97. He also served on the board of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts & Sciences for nearly 20 years, including as its chairman from 1979-1981. Earlier in his career, he served as a trustee at the Police Athletic League and as a regent at St. Francis College. He received numerous awards for distinguished trusteeship, including a special citation in 1975 for his outstanding service to BAM.
Faison often said that his greatest contribution in Brooklyn Heights was leading efforts in 1958 to save the Brooklyn Heights Casino, the athletic club on Montague Street, when it was teetering on the edge of financial collapse. Its board of governors recommended closing the Heights Casino, and Faison led a group known as “the Young Turks” to change the business model, welcome young families and revive daily operations. As part of the change, Faison became president of the Heights Casino from 1958-1960, and set it on a path to financial health that continues today.
With the basic and conservative common sense of a man who understands insurance, he served as an executive for 32 years at Johnson & Higgins. (He often walked the Brooklyn Bridge to their corporate office in Wall Street area, along with legendary neighbor J. Victor Herd, the late chairman of Continental Insurance Co.)
Also legendary, the former minister at First Unitarian Church, Rev. Donald McKinney, noted during the 1970s that “Having Seth as a trustee at our church has been a Godsend, because he anticipated and corrected early on all of the physical plant issues that have grown into crisis proportions for many of our neighboring churches of the same vintage.”
Educated at Poly Prep and Wesleyan, Faison also served in the U.S. Navy. His roots and memories are deep in Brooklyn Heights, the rare, landmark village that remains largely 19th century scale in a high-rise city. Indeed, few if any of Faison’s friends and peers surviving could ever claim so rich a childhood connection to Brooklyn Heights.
In the 1980s at a black-tie gathering of one of Brooklyn’s numerous social clubs dating from the Victorian era, Faison recalled when Montague Street continued down a hill to the piers (before the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and Promenade were built).
“As foolish young lads,” he recalled, “we would ride our sleds down that hill on snowy days. The most daring of us would use momentum of the hill to slide right under the slow-moving rail cars that were being pushed around the yard for loading …”
On another occasion in the 1980s, in a meeting of an old club founded in the mid-1800s, held at 43 Remsen St., Faison reminded the assembled group that he had grown up in that very house.
“My brother Jack and I used to sneak out of our bedroom and hide at the top of those stairs (pointing) in order to eavesdrop on meetings of this very club ... our father was a member.”
At the Heights Casino, a tennis and squash club founded on Montague Street in 1904, Faison was more than a former president. He enjoyed an active participation in doubles squash well into his late 80s. In 1959, he won the club championship in squash doubles with David C. Johnson, for whom the internationally known tournament at the Casino is named.
Faison is survived by his wife, Sara R. Faison, who was beside him when he died, and by four children, Katherine, Seth Jr., Sally and Ann; two step-daughters, Sally Chew and Katherine Chew; and 10 grandchildren. His first wife, Susan T. Faison, died in 1978.
A memorial service is being planned by the family in the Spring.