Businessman and philanthropist Natan Peisach often tells the story of his first day at Williston. It was the fall of 1954, and the 14-year-old from Bogota, Colombia, was trying to understand a place where even the seasons were new. At an orientation meeting in the basement of Memorial Hall, dorm master Dave Thomas presented the school’s daily schedule to the assembled boys, then asked if anyone had questions. Peisach raised his hand: “Is the water in the bathrooms drinkable?”
“Half of the kids laughed,” recalls Peisach, who had previously attended the American School in Bogota. “And Dave Thomas had the intelligence to, right away, stop the whole thing and tell them, ‘Listen, this boy comes from a country where they are not sure of the purity of the water. And he’s been taught since he was a little kid that everywhere he goes, he has to make sure the water is not contaminated.’ The boys’ reaction made a tremendous impact on me, because I realized then the difference in my environmental upbringing.”
The incident would be just the first of many formative experiences for Peisach at Williston, where few students were from another country and even fewer were Jewish. Adding to the culture shock, his father’s import and textile business back in Bogota had provided Peisach’s family with a comfortable home looked after by a maid. Now, Peisach was expected to make his own bed “like a marine,” keep his room clean, and work the campus jobs required of all the students, sweeping hallways and waiting on his classmates in the dining hall. And when he returned to Bogota at the end of the school year, he had to make the 2,500-mile journey on his own, lugging his trunk on the train from Easthampton to New York and to the airport. It was all new to Peisach, and looking back, he sees these experiences as invaluable.
“I give it the maximum importance,” says Peisach, whose family businesses today have grown to include rose farms in Colombia and Passion Growers, which supplies cut roses to U.S. grocery stores, as well as Grupo Phoenix, a multinational packaging company that manufactures Keurig cups and Yoplait tubs, among other containers. “It taught me to be organized. It taught me to be responsible and independent. I’ve always said that my experience at Williston was much more formative of my character and my discipline than my experience in college. The learning process in those years taught me the discipline one needs for life and the responsibility that it requires.”
Despite being far from home, Peisach’s connection to his family remained strong. Telephone calls to Colombia were unreliable, so the family relied on the mail. “My communication with home was a letter I would get from my mother every day, and a letter I would get from my father once a week,” he recalls. “I would write home three times a week. There was nothing like looking forward to going to the P.O. box in the school cafeteria and every day getting a letter from mom to see what’s going on. She wanted to try to keep me very close and keep me informed, and for me to feel the warmth of home.”
If his situation ever did weigh on him, Peisach found inspiration in his father’s own story of adolescent perseverance. Born in Russia, Chaim Peisach also left home at 14, fleeing the persecution of Jews by the Cossacks in 1917. He told his parents he’d someday come back for them, then traveled alone to Romania, Palestine, and eventually to Colombia, where he set about educating himself, learning to speak and write Spanish, then English. By 1938, he had established the spinning mill that would eventually become the textile company Hilanderia Fontibon.
“He was totally self-made,” says Peisach. “He learned how to interact with people, and he was hardworking, successful and generous. My father used to tell me, ‘You have to learn, be disciplined, and true to your word.’ Because he was coming from a place where they could take everything away from him, he always said, ‘The one thing they will never take away from you is what you have in your head.’ And because he had struggled so much getting to Colombia and establishing himself there, he always tried to help the immigrants that arrived from Europe escaping persecution like he did.”
Understanding the importance of a good education, Peisach graduated a year early from Williston (he took a Spanish exam that gave him three years of foreign language credit) then went on to earn his degree in economics at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. His three children, one of his daughters-in-law, and seven grandchildren also attended Penn, and he and his wife Lidia have been generous supporters of the university, donating $1 million in 2006 for a new wing for the English language building.
Today, Peisach divides his time between Miami and Bogota, as his sons have taken over the management of the family’s various enterprises. In life and in business, family ties remain central to the Peisachs, what Peisach refers to as passing the baton. “I call it a relay. My father to me, me to my children, and, in the future, from them down to my grandchildren.”
In their support for Willison, Natan and Lidia have demonstrated a similar desire to pass along opportunity. The school recently recognized the couple’s long-standing generosity by naming the front porch of the new Emily McFadon Vincent House in their honor. (It is now known as the Peisach Porch.) “I feel thankful to Williston and to Penn, because I feel I owe them.” Peisach explains. “I owe them who I am today, to a great degree. Besides my parents, they formed me. They formed my character. And it’s important to help a school that did that for me, and I hope will continue doing that for kids in the future. It’s wanting to give back, but it’s gratefulness more than anything. And I just can’t think that, I feel I have to show it.”