Carol Colby Tanenbaum
The true spirit of giving
“But I never would have gone [to college] if my neighbor hadn’t offered,” says Tanenbaum. That offer of assistance, more than half a century ago, inspired her to help other aspiring students. Most recently, this inspiration has taken the form of a generous bequest to Johnson.
What makes Tanenbaum’s gifts even more remarkable is that she never attended Cornell: Her initial Cornell connection was through her husband, the late Robert M. Tanenbaum ’54, MBA ’55. The couple established the Robert M. and Carol Colby Tanenbaum Scholarship, which has been helping Johnson students for about 20 years now.
“What fascinates me about Cornellians is that they form really tight relationships, and they maintain their ties to Cornell, more so than other schools,” says Tanenbaum. She loves the Cornellian spirit of giving back, and hopes that today’s MBAs continue to honor the tradition of giving sincerely. “I would hope that they do something out of commitment to a school or to a person who was influential in their lives, rather than just to demonstrate community involvement to superiors or to get ahead,” she adds.
She met Robert Tanenbaum in 1964, when she first moved to New York City to take a job at Mt. Sinai Hospital. “It came time to do my tax return, and I called the one person I knew in New York, an accountant named Irving. He said, ‘I know a tax expert.’” Irving introduced her to Robert, a successful young tax attorney. “He did my tax return, and we got into a big battle over politics — it was the year of Goldwater vs. Johnson. Robert was a genetic Republican. I was not,” says Tanenbaum.
Political differences weren’t enough to drive the pair apart (or perhaps they fanned the romantic flame, instead); the couple had their first date on June 30, were engaged on July 17, and married on October 23. At the time, few wives worked, but Robert was always supportive of Carol’s career. “When I wanted to go back to school, he was initially concerned about who would cook dinner, but I convinced him he wouldn’t starve. And he sat in the audience at graduation, with the parents, as if it had been his idea from the beginning,” she says.
The couple loved to travel — a passion that Tanenbaum continues today. She and her cameras have visited at least 42 countries (she exhibits her photos at colbytanenbaum.com), and she casually throws out phrases like, “The last time I was in Mongolia….” Though not a native of the city (she was born in Philadelphia), Tanenbaum is the kind of dedicated New Yorker who, at any given time, can tell you what exhibits are on at the galleries and museums, what’s playing at theaters on and off Broadway, where the best coffee and breakfast spots are, and which subways will take you there. She fondly remembers seeing Mayor Ed Koch at her gym. “He had a favorite treadmill, and if you were on it, he would just stand behind you until you got off,” she says.
As accomplished, worldly and fascinating as she is, Tanenbaum is straightforward and down to earth, and still remembers that early act of kindness. “If someone hadn’t offered to pay my tuition in nursing school, quite literally I wouldn’t be here,” she says simply. “You look back and realize that there’s that turning point, that one person who believes in you and the one person who makes it financially viable for you to get where you want to go.”
And she still doesn’t like to do her own tax returns.