From the Mill River Collaborative to the plethora of local nonprofits, the new Stamford Citizen of the Year, Arthur Selkowitz, is tirelessly making our city a better place for everyone
Arty Selkowitz (photography by Lisa Barlow)
When Adam Selkowitz, 40, or Jed Selkowitz, 37, come to Stamford to visit their parents, Arthur and Betsey Selkowitz, they know that one activity is always on the agenda: their dad has to drive by the Mill River Park playground to check it out. How many children are using it? Is it clean? Is the equipment in good condition?
It's that obsessive attention to detail and passionate commitment to all of his many volunteer activities that made Arthur Selkowitz (known as Arty to his friends) the natural choice for the 2011 Citizen of the Year Award, given out by The Jewish War Veterans Fred Robbins Post 142. (Recent winners were Dick Tabor, Juanita James and Bobby Valentine.)
According to the criteria for this prestigious award, Selkowitz, 68, was recognized as “a person who has demonstrated a belief in interfaith harmony, possesses the highest standards of responsibility in civic life, has helped in the promotion of projects for the public welfare, and who has personally worked with distinction to benefit Stamford on a community-wide basis.”
Before he retired in 2000, Selkowitz had a long, illustrious advertising career, ending as Chairman & Chief Executive Officer of D’Arcy, Masius, Benton & Bowles, one of the biggest global advertising agencies and a major component company of Bcom3 Group, a large marketing and advertising holding company. He was closely associated with clients such as Procter & Gamble, Mars, General Motors, and Royal Philips Electronics. But retirement can mean different things to different people. To Selkowitz, it's only a matter of semantics and payroll detail, “I work just as hard. I just don’t get paid!”
Although a list of Selkowitz’s volunteer activities could take up a whole page, he is mostly known for his work as chairman of the Mill River Collaborative, which is creating a multi-use urban green space in downtown Stamford.
"Arty has been a tireless champion for the City of Stamford, but none as profound as in his leadership of the Mill River Collaborative. I wholeheartedly support his selection as Citizen of the Year," said Stamford Mayor Michael Pavia. "Arty has taken a vision that has been talked about for decades and made it a reality not just for Stamford's current citizens but for generations to come.”
“The Mill River is not completed yet but every part that has to be in place is there because of Arty’s vision, and more important, his tenacity,” added the 2005 Citizen of the Year winner Sandy Goldstein, executive director of the Downtown Special Services District – which, in 2010, recognized Selkowitz for his Outstanding Commitment to Stamford Downtown. “He has raised practically every cent that came from the Collaborative, which is more than $6 million. He has been relentless and tireless as he marches along with his mission that he ensures that there is a lovely a park along that river for everyone to enjoy.” The Mill River project’s goal is to raise $20 million so that it can achieve all of its objectives.
Other volunteer positions where Mr. Selkowitz dedicates his time and energy include the board and executive committee member of the Lupus Research Institute in New York, which he and Betsey, 67, became involved in after Adam was diagnosed with the disease at age 16. He is also a member of the Leadership Council of the Childcare Learning Centers in Stamford, past president of the Stamford Jewish Community Center, and a Board member of the Stamford Museum and Nature Center, and The Avon Theater in Stamford. The couple also is supporters of other local organizations, including St. Luke’s LifeWorks, Person-to-Person, Jewish Home for the Elderly in Fairfield and Kids in Crisis. In May 2000, Selkowitz was honored in New York with the first-ever United Jewish Appeal Global Leadership Award for outstanding contributions to industry and community.
In 2009 he was chosen as “Best Male Dancer” in Curtain Call of Stamford’s “Dancing with the Stars” charity event. Jami Sherwood, a Curtain Call board member, recalls that everyone was very impressed about how seriously Selkowitz took the challenge. He danced a tango with dance instructor Juliet Thiabdeaux. “He was very conscientious about putting on the best performance he could, plus he raised a lot of money for us. He was relentless about getting his friends to donate,” she says. (When asked about it, Selkowitz says with a shrug, “I didn’t want to make a fool of myself.”)
Selkowitz, who was raised in Stamford, and Betsey, who came from Norwalk, both grew up in families that taught the importance of giving back to one’s community. “We’ve been blessed to be in a position to give of our time and money to things that are meaningful to us and to the community. Not everyone has the opportunity to do that, especially in times like these when the government is cutting back. You have to have public/private partnerships to get anything done. Mill River Park would never have gotten off the ground if the private sector hadn’t stepped in to accelerate the process,” says Selkowitz.
The couple has passed on this legacy of giving to their two sons, who are also very active volunteers in their communities. “When we were growing up, my brother and I never differentiated between my parents’ paid work and their volunteer activities. Each was given equal importance and weight, and that’s something we took to heart,” says Adam.
The couple met when they were both counselors at Camp Playland. Betsey was 21 years old, with one more year left of school at Skidmore College. Selkowitz was 21 and had just graduated from Syracuse University. He had taken the job just to have one last carefree summer before entering the corporate life. “I knew immediately that I was going to marry her, although I don’t think she was so sure!” recalls Selkowitz with a laugh.
At that time, Selkowitz had other weighty concerns to deal with. His father died when he was 15; his mother passed away when he was 21. He had just taken guardianship of his 14-year-old brother, Robert. (Older brother Anton was traveling.) He stayed in the family home in Shippan with Robert, eventually commuting into New York City every day when he landed his first job as a copywriter and production assistant at Montgomery Ward catalogs. “It was a maturing experience,” he says simply.
After his huge career in advertising and raising a family, no one would have blamed him if he retired to a golf course. Eight years ago, he and Betsey did move from their home in Westover to a seaside house down the street from his childhood home in Shippan. Taking it easy, however, is not in either Selkowitz’s DNA.
As soon as Selkowitz officially retired, he was contacted by his friend Stephen Osman, who was at that time the chairman of?the Stamford Urban Redevelopment Commission, the group that was sponsoring the Mill River project. (Osman stepped down recently.) The government wanted to put together a group of private citizens who would steer it, so Osman asked Selkowitz to head up the new Collaborative. “I knew Arty was a person who got things done and that he was comfortable calling on chief executives,” says Osman.
Selkowitz bit. “It intrigued me because it sounded like a really challenging project. I knew I could bring some added skills to the organization because my whole business experience was in marketing and advertising. I thought this was an important legacy for this generation to leave this [the new] generation.”
“Arty immediately decided it should be a world-class park that would unite citizens the way that Central Park does in New York City, and he ran with that concept,” says Osman, adding that Selkowitz made a substantial financial contribution as well. “He is totally committed to the project and he knew he had to put his money where his mouth is. He does that with anything he does.”
It wasn’t an easy road. There was some opposition from citizens, especially when it was announced that the beloved cherry trees by the river would have to come down. Selkowitz was even called a “cherry tree assassin.” “The trees were over 60 years old and near the end of their useful life anyway, but I understood the emotional attachment people had. I think when we recreated the natural flow of the river for the first time in 360 years, people realized how good this was going to be,” recalls Selkowitz. “And we always promised from day one that we would have more cherry trees and a better cherry tree experience. We are going to have two different kinds of cherry trees so we will have a longer bloom and some will bloom a second time in the fall.”
The Mill River project broke ground on October 16, 2011 for phase one, which is 12 acres from Main Street to Broad Street, the largest section of the park. So far it’s on schedule for a spring 2013 opening. But Selkowitz already can’t contain his excitement over the playground, which opened 2006. “It’s a wonderful because it draws from all over the community. We also want to put in an interactive fountain that kids can run through in the summer. If the city can raise the money, we intend to put in a winter ice skating rink. That’s what we hoped the Mill River Park would do – bring the community together.”
And when it does, you’ll see Selkowitz delightedly pointing it all out to his sons, as he drives them by it yet one more time.