New York Life not only has a history of enduring national crises and emerging stronger than before, we even have a history of a yearlong anniversary celebration being upended by a crisis. As we proudly but respectfully mark the company’s 175th anniversary on April 12 in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, we are reminded of a similar situation 75 years ago…
Thousands of hours and a great deal of money went into planning events to celebrate our big company anniversary. We arranged parties, conferences, and a national meeting in New York City for our leading agents. But it was all put aside because there were more important things to address. The nation was in the middle of a terrible crisis, and New York Life was focused, as always, on ensuring the health and well-being of its employees, agents, clients, and communities.
The year was 1945.
The company scaled back its big plans to celebrate its 100th anniversary due to complications related to World War II. According to a company announcement in January 1945, “Our plans for holding the [national agents’] meeting on April 11 and 12, 1945, were already made, including all hotel reservations, when the news from the German war front suddenly changed the picture.” (This is probably a reference to the Battle of the Bulge, when Germany briefly looked to be regaining strength in Europe.)
Part of the reason for postponing the agents meeting, which was eventually held in April of 1947, was that the government had asked that wartime travel be kept to a minimum, and many commodities, including fuel, were being conserved for the war effort. Respectful of the climate, New York Life held no special ceremonies at the Home Office on April 12 to mark its 100th anniversary.
“The agents in the Company’s Branch Offices throughout the United States and Canada, however, were reluctant to let the Anniversary Day pass without some special recognition,” noted a release the company put out afterwards. “It was therefore felt that it would be particularly fitting for the agents to make a special nationwide effort to arrange for the protection of as many families as possible on April 12, 1945.”
Death of a president
With the war ongoing, New York Life’s entire yearlong 100th anniversary campaign, which began in April 1944, had a tone of relative austerity. The insurance journal United States Review published an editorial applauding the company for its restraint. “The quiet dignity with which the New York Life marked its Centennial will commend itself to all,” the journal wrote. “The problem of doing justice to its Centennial against a background of war was a real one and the decision to mark it quietly and reverently afforded a most sensible solution.”
Then, as if the company needed more of a reason to mute its centennial celebrations, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had recently begun his fourth term as president of the United States, died on the afternoon of April 12, 1945, New York Life’s actual 100th birthday. His death was announced at 6 p.m. and word spread quickly around the country. The following day, New York Life held a special ceremony not to honor its own heritage but to honor President Roosevelt—who was beloved across the country and also happened to be a policy owner.
This month, April 2020, was supposed to be the biggest celebration of our company in 25 years, since the 150th anniversary. There were ceremonies scheduled for April 13, and, of course, Company Day scheduled for April 27, when several thousand employees and partners were to gather in New York City for a big event.
But once again, there are more important matters at hand. And so once again, rather than celebrating our successes, the people of New York Life are rededicating themselves to the high purpose espoused by the company’s founders 175 years ago and carried forth ever since—to be there when needed. Isn’t doing that, after all, the ultimate celebration of our heritage?
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Above image: A plaque commemorating the company's 100th anniversary was unveiled in the New York Life Home Office lobby in 1947 rather than 1945 due to World War II.