The Sy Syms Foundation made its first gift to the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in 2010. But the roots of that gift reach back 30 years and tell the story of an American family founded on hard work and dedicated to philanthropy.
Sy Syms was the child of Russian immigrants. In 1959 he opened SYMS, New York City’s first off-price clothing retailer. Over the next 50 years, Sy’s clothing store became a household name in New York, and his company eventually expanded into 16 states.
Marcy Syms, the eldest of Sy’s six children, joined the SYMS Corporation in 1978 when her father expanded the business to include women’s clothing. She remained with the company until it closed in 2012. Marcy served in various roles, including director of marketing and real estate, chief operating officer and, after Sy gave up the title of CEO in 1998, chief executive officer.
Part of the company’s budget was directed to philanthropy and community support, says Marcy. “That was always part of our culture.”
In 1985, Sy cemented his commitment to philanthropy by establishing the Sy Syms Foundation with personal funds. Marcy, a founding trustee, says that the foundation was her father’s way of giving back to his community.
“I think he was always very conscious of how fortunate he was,” Marcy says. “His parents came to this country with nothing. He went to college on the GI bill and bought his first home with a GI loan. He felt blessed to be an American, and he loved New York City.”
Through the years, the Sy Syms Foundation has supported the advance of science, education and the arts, and has provided important funding to such organizations as Public Television, National Public Radio and the Sy Syms School of Business at Yeshiva University. Another area of focus has been medical research into diseases, particularly those that have had an impact on the Syms family.
And that is where this family’s story intersects with the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center, nearly a continent away.
In 1980, Sy’s brother-in-law, Joe Freiberg, was receiving care for Parkinson’s disease from a general practitioner in New York. Joe’s son, Mark, decided it was time to take his father to a neurologist specializing in Parkinson’s disease. The physician he chose was Abraham Lieberman, MD, a professor at New York University Medical Center.
Mark soon saw the difference a specialist can make. Under Dr. Lieberman’s care, Joe participated in one of the first clinical trials for dopamine agonists.
“The trial helped. It gave him a better quality of life for a while—less shaking and more mobility,” says Mark. “He loved Abe. Abe has a great bedside manner. All doctors should have the warmth that Abe Lieberman has.”
Mark stayed in contact with Dr. Lieberman after his father died in 1989, even when the neurologist left New York for Barrow Neurological Institute. He never forgot all that Dr. Lieberman had done for Joe.
When Mark became a trustee of the Sy Syms Foundation in 2010, he was finally able to express his gratitude to Dr. Lieberman, who by then was the director of the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at Barrow.
Mark, who had seen firsthand the difference specialty training can make for Parkinson’s patients, was able to convince his fellow board members that fellowship training at the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center deserved their support. That year, the Sy Syms Foundation made the first of several gifts it has made for fellowship training at the center.
The gift was a fitting one, reflecting the Syms family’s commitment to education and medical advancement, their love of family and their gratitude to Dr. Lieberman. “It feels good to give back,” says Marcy.
“It just makes life worth living.”