At the Welcome Sunday Supper, I-House President & CEO Sebastian Fries, PhD, gave the following remarks to an audience of hundreds of residents, several members of the Board of Trustees, several alumni—including Daisy Soros ’51—and the evening’s keynote speaker, Secretary Jeh Johnson.
Sebastian’s remarks on Sunday, September 18, 2022:
Good evening, everyone, and a very warm welcome to you all:
to our residents, Trustees, to our alumni, members of our I-House staff, spouses, guests, friends and last but not least, to our speakers, Daisy Soros and Secretary Jeh Johnson.
I am thrilled to see all of you here tonight.
I want to begin by telling you a short story. It is about two people who lived at I-House—two people who sat down in this very room for Sunday Supper in September of 1924, almost exactly 98 years ago today.
By the way, the first Sunday Suppers were very simple meals—not like the short ribs and bourbon vanilla bean cake we are having this evening.
According to our archives, residents in 1924 were served a delicious meal consisting of a peanut butter sandwich and a cup of hot chocolate. In later years, we upgraded to macaroni and cheese, baked beans, and an apple. No wine!
Food was clearly not the main reason why students joined I-House back then.
By the way, this was an attempt at a joke. Like most Germans, I am on a life-long mission to prove that Germans can actually be funny. Sadly, I have a long way to go!
But back to my story about the two residents—
In 1924, a young man named Tom Jones moved into a room in South. He was from a small town in Indiana and came to New York to study sociology at Columbia.
On his very first day at I-House Tom met a fellow resident on his floor, a Black man from Liberia named Thorgues Sie.
Tom was unaccustomed to sharing facilities with people of color. At the time, segregation was common and even the law in many states in this country. Meeting Thorgues unsettled Tom.
He was upset, and immediately thought to himself: This place is not for me! I should go back to Indiana!
But later, Tom paused. He reflected more on the situation and his own reaction.
And then he came to understand that Thorgues had just as much a right to be a resident of International House, or even more so, as he himself did.
Tom’s anger subsided. He felt deeply ashamed about his prejudice and his closed-mindedness.
Tom and Thorgues went on to become very close friends at I-House. Both went on to accomplish great things and have meaningful careers.
Thorgues ended up returning to Liberia. He became a political activist, working to give women and other disenfranchised Liberians the right to vote. He was jailed for standing up for the rights of others.
Tom went on to become the fifth president of Fisk University, one of the leading Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the United States. He dedicated his career to improving education for Black Americans.
I like this story for a few reasons
First, through living at I-House, Tom learned something invaluable. He learned to question his preconceived notions about other people.
He learned to respond thoughtfully, rather than react emotionally to challenging situations.
He learned that we are all in this together and we are better when we understand and respect one another.
Second, through living at I-House Tom and Thorgues formed a life-long friendship despite the rocky beginning.
Like Tom and Thorgues, I met another I-House alum who told me something that stuck with me.
He said: “I made friends in college and graduate school, but to this day, the people I am closest to—my very best friends—are the people I met at I-House.
Third, both Tom and Thorgues took the lessons they learned from I-House and shared it with others. They helped spread it and changed other people’s lives and they each made the world a better place in their own way.
And, finally, I like this story because it illustrates the relevance and impact of the I-House mission today.
Today, the world is bitterly divided and polarized. We isolate ourselves from those with opposing views. We live in our own echo chamber. We demonize those who do not agree with us. There is too much hatred without understanding.
I-House was founded on the radical belief that in living together, we can overcome deep polarization and discrimination.
We can follow the example of Tom and Thorgues and:
Learn how to be more open with each other
Learn how to be truly curious about someone else’s culture, opinion, and perspectives,
Learn how to be better and more active listeners,
And find more productive ways to engage with those who hold different views than we do
If we as “I-House-ers” do these things, then I know we can bridge divides between people, we can solve challenging global problems together, and we can make this world a better place.
So, in conclusion,
I hope—no, I know—you will meet your friends for life here at I-House – look around, they are probably sitting right next to you tonight.
I hope you have many life-changing experiences.
And I hope your time here will expand and open your minds.
I am glad you are here and are joining us on this journey.
And I can’t wait to hear about all the wonderful I-House stories you create for yourselves.
When in doubt: Be a Thorgues. Be a Tom.
Have a great fall and thank you again for joining us tonight.
Sebastian introduced Daisy Soros at the event:
“Daisy’s life has been full of challenges, triumphs, and generosity to others. She survived World War II in Budapest. After the war, she was educated in Switzerland, moved to the United States, enrolled at Columbia University, and became a resident of I-House.
Her ties to I-House are deep and personal. It is where she met Paul Soros, an engineering student and fellow immigrant, and they married in 1951.
As Paul built his business and they raised their family, Daisy became involved in philanthropic work reflecting her interests and passions.
She joined the boards of many organizations, including Cornell Medical School, Society of Memorial Sloan-Kettering, Lincoln Center, New York Philharmonic, and the Metropolitan Opera – just to name a few.
In 1998, they established the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans, which each year supports 30 “new Americans” – immigrants or the children of immigrants who are pursuing graduate or professional school in the United States.
Never too far from I-House, Daisy joined our Board in 1981, and has chaired numerous committees and fund-raising galas, including the 75th Anniversary Capital Campaign, along with her husband Paul, who sadly passed away in 2013.
With the success of that campaign, they set the bar high for our 100th anniversary in a couple of years, and we know we have big shoes to fill!
These biographical facts do not begin to describe the person that is Daisy herself. She has a penetrating curiosity, a zest for life and a wit like no other. When we met for tea last spring, Daisy entertained us with colorful accounts of her experiences meeting new friends in our dining hall, and of summer mishaps waitressing in the Berkshires.
Please join me in welcoming the one and only Daisy Soros.”
Sebastian introduced Secretary Jeh Johnson:
“I now have the great pleasure of introducing our keynote speaker.
Secretary Jeh Johnson has had an illustrious career in both the public and private sectors.
Listing all of his professional accomplishments would have us here for a few more hours, so I will highlight a just a few.
He served as President Barak Obama’s Secretary of Homeland Security from 2013 to 2017. Prior to that, he served in the Clinton Administration as the General Counsel of the Department of Defense and General Counsel of the Air Force. He was an Assistant US Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 1989 to 1991.
Secretary Johnson is on the Boards of the Council on Foreign Relations, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, and is a Trustee of Columbia University, and several companies. He has received numerous awards for public service including the Ellis Island Medal of Honor and the Reagan Peace Through Strength Award.
Though Secretary Johnson is a graduate of Columbia Law School, he unfortunately did not live at I-House. We will let that slide.
Today, Secretary Johnson is a partner at Paul Weiss, one of the premier law firms in New York City, and a frequent commentator on NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, and other networks.
When I first met Secretary Johnson a few weeks ago, I was excited to learn that he also hosts a popular radio show called All Things Soul on WBGO. If you aren’t already a listener, I highly recommend you check in out—the music he plays and the interviews he does with politicians, journalists, and others are just great.
One final thing I wanted to mention and share with you all is that when President Obama nominated him for Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh explained during his White House acceptance speech:
‘I am a New Yorker, and I was present in Manhattan on 9/11, which happens to be my birthday, when that bright and beautiful day was shattered by the largest terrorist attack on our homeland in history, I wandered the streets of New York that day and asked, what can I do? Since then, I have tried to devote myself to answering that question’
He has done—and continues to do—so much.
On behalf of International House, I am honored to have this distinguished leader with us tonight to share some remarks. Please join me in welcoming Secretary Jeh Johnson.”