Siblings team up to raise $1 billion for Pitt

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With nearly 12 years and very distinct careers separating Eva Tansky Blum and her brother, Burt Tansky, neither thought they would ever pair up professionally.

Not to mention the geographic issue: Ms. Blum, chair of the PNC Foundation, is based in their hometown, Pittsburgh, while Mr. Tansky resides in Dallas, where he is the chief executive officer of upscale retailer Neiman Marcus Group.

But through their common connection with the University of Pittsburgh, the siblings have ended up as co-chairs of the second phase of Pitt's $2 billion capital campaign.

Both Ms. Blum, 58, and Mr. Tansky, 69, have sat on Pitt's board of trustees for three years. In June they were named to head the campaign which has a target goal of $1 billion and is an extension of a previous $1 billion campaign headed by Tom Usher, retired chairman of U.S. Steel Corp.

"They've told us we are the first brother-sister team to serve on the Pitt board of trustees at the same time," said Ms. Blum.

Though they are rarely on the fund-raising trail together, both attend trustee board meetings in Pittsburgh and talk frequently on the phone.

"It's so much fun for me to be able to talk to him about substance, some strategy, and sit at meetings and watch him operate and see him in a different setting than just the family setting," Ms. Blum said of her brother.

Mr. Tansky acknowledges that his sister "is really the point person of our team."

"I'm in Dallas; she's in Pittsburgh. She's terrific, smart ... knows many, many people in the city and will make a big impact on this campaign. I will be as helpful as I can from a long distance."

The Peabody High School graduates are the children of European immigrants who didn't have the opportunity to go to college but who placed enormous value on education, said Ms. Blum. Their sister, Shirley Gordon, is a preschool teacher in Squirrel Hill.

As the first generation of their family to go to college, it was appropriate for Ms. Blum and her brother to take on the fund-raising role at Pitt.

"The university gave us a chance to get the degrees we needed to succeed. So it's an honor to serve in this capacity and give something back," she said.

Mr. Tansky graduated from Pitt in 1960 with a bachelor's degree in history and joined Kaufmann's management training program.

He worked his way up from assistant buyer to buyer before leaving the Pittsburgh department store in 1967 to become a store manager for Filene's in Boston.

From there he held a series of management jobs for stores in Dayton, Ohio, and San Francisco before joining Saks Fifth Avenue in New York. He was named president of Saks in 1980, and a decade later became chief executive officer of luxury retailer Bergdorf Goodman, a subsidiary of Neiman Marcus. He joined Neiman's executive team in Dallas in 1994 and became chief executive officer of Neiman Marcus Group in 2001.

Ms. Blum earned her bachelor's degree in political science in 1970 and went straight to Pitt's law school from which she graduated in 1973. She moved to Washington, D.C., to become a federal government attorney and staff attorney for Allegheny Airlines (a predecessor to US Airways) before returning to Pittsburgh in 1977 to join PNC, then known as Pittsburgh National Bank. While working in various legal positions there, she assumed increasing responsibility for community development activities and was named chair of the PNC Foundation in 2002.

Despite uncertainties in the economy that could hamper donations, both Ms. Blum and Mr. Tansky are optimistic Pitt's alumni will step up to the challenge of raising another $1 billion to reach the school's $2 billion goal.

"I think the climate is good," said Mr. Tansky. "There's generally a lot of interest in universities today, and people who have the means want to give and participate in the university's growth. We have to get to them."

They'll try to accomplish that by traveling to alumni events around the country with top university officials, including Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, who tries to generate donations by speaking to alums about Pitt's recent achievements in attracting prestigious faculty and completing recent construction projects such as the Petersen Events Center and 10-story Biomedical Science Tower 3.

Al Novak, vice chancellor of institutional advancement at Pitt, said the next round of capital is targeted for scholarships, fellowships, cutting-edge research programs, and facility upgrades including the preservation of the landmark Cathedral of Learning.

Some alumni gatherings are pegged to major sporting events in other cities, such as Pitt football or basketball games; others are organized by active alumni clubs in places such as Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; and San Francisco, where events can sometimes attract several hundred alums, Ms. Blum said.

There are more than 250,000 Pitt alumni worldwide, "and we need to reach all of them and really reconnect," Ms. Blum said.

While $1 billion "is a lot of money," she said, "I am confident that there are so many people who want to help the university that it will happen. It may be that they can't stretch as far as they would have before, but I still believe they do want to help."

For their part, the siblings last year donated a family gift to the university and dedicated a lounge in the student union in memory of their parents. Ms. Blum declined to disclose the amount of the contribution.

The pair, who were raised in East Liberty, are suited to the fund-raising role, Mr. Tansky said, because "we're aggressive, we seek out answers, look for opportunities and go after those opportunities directly."

Ms. Blum agreed they have similar management styles.

"That's probably a result of the way we were raised. We had really terrific parents who taught us to value every single person we meet. I've walked through stores [with Burt] over the years and he knows so many of the people on the sales floor, and when people find out we're related they'll just sing his praises.

"He is a great big brother, and now to have the opportunity to work with him on this campaign is the icing on the cake."


Joyce Gannon can be reached at jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.


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