Columbus businessman, philanthropist and community leader David Rothschild died Tuesday at age 88.
“He was a gentle soul with incredible integrity,” said retired Temple Israel Rabbi Tom Friedmann.
But inside that gentleness was a fighter’s spirit.
“He was always a gentleman, but he was always aggressive in what he believed,” said Judge Aaron Cohn, a friend for more than 80 years.
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Aggressive and determined. And those characteristics were evident in Rothschild’s final years.
“Nobody has ever fought cancer harder than he did,” said close friend Dr. Philip Schley, chairman of the Muscogee County School Board. “Whatever it took to prolong his life, he has done it.”
And he lived a life with purpose, those who know him best said.
To understand that purpose, all you have to do is read a yellow clipping from the May 3, 1968, Columbus Ledger. At the height of the nation’s racial tension, Rothschild, in an opinion piece for Law Week, expressed his beliefs in a 395-word essay.
It read in part:
“A better society based on equal justice for all can only be accomplished in a nation where the citizens respect and willingly obey the law,” Rothschild wrote. “The law in our great country is not changeless, but rather a living code reflecting the shifting values of the times. The process of peaceful legal change is only possible under a government of laws.”
“That’s David Rothschild,” Cohn said.
Friedmann, who was at Temple Israel for 15 years and now lives in Cincinnati, agrees.
“Because he is so aware of the inequities in our society, he sees education as the real remedy to that,” Friedmann said. “It is the only way people can get out of poverty and succeed.”
Former Muscogee County Superintendent Jim Buntin said Rothschild’s “heart is as pure as anybody’s ever been.”
“He is, simply, one of the finest peoeple I know,” Buntin said.
Cohn said anyone who knew Rothschild was not surprised by the way he fought cancer.
“The one thing about David is he is a fighter,” Cohn said. “He’s fought this thing for a long time. He’s lived life until the last moment.”
Rothschild sought treatment across the country, including at the Mayo Clinic.
“He stopped chemo and radiation in March,” Schley said. “He told me he didn’t know how much time he had left, but he wanted to take advantage of it.”
And he did with zest, said his nephew Alan Rothschild.
“Even though he has been sick, he has had a full calendar,” Alan Rothschild said. “He goes to work every day. He continues his volunteer efforts with Partners in Education. He is a season ticket holder at the RiverCenter, Springer and the museum. I can not remember going to an event and not seeing David and (his wife) Barbara.”
A lifetime of education
Rothschild was “beautifully educated,” as Cohn noted.
After Rothschild graduated from Columbus High in 1937, he earned an undergraduate degree in commerce from the University of Virginia and a law degree from Yale in 1947.
His learning didn’t stop there.
He took graduate courses at the Harvard Business School and courses from Columbus College.
“He believed in lifelong learning,” Alan Rothschild said. “Whether it was going to a lecture at the museum or taking a course, he believed lifelong learning is part of the process.”
And Rothschild pushed education in the community, serving 20 years on the Muscogee County School Board, first appointed by the grand jury in 1960, then after a nearly 20-year break he was elected as the District 8 representative in 1994.
“He felt, as I do, the only way out for some people in our community was through public education,” said Schley, the current chairman of the school board. “His mind never leaves public education.”
In 1993, when Rothschild announced he was going to run for a seat on the first elected board, he outlined his commitment to public education.
“I have a passion for public education, realizing its importance in our democracy,” he wrote in a release to the newspaper. “Public education makes it possible for many to fulfill their dreams. It can also play a significant role in solving some of our social and economic problems.”
Education was at the top of Rothschild’s priority list.
“Education is the thing that he is most passionate about,” Alan Rothschild said.
And that passion came through in his financial support as well as the causes he chose to champion. The David Rothschild Company has been a partner in education with Rothschild Middle School since 1988. The school has a deep family connection, being named for his late uncle Maurice Rothschild, who was also a school board member. David Rothschild served until his death on the school’s local advisory council.
Just before the start of the current school year, Rothschild met with principal Chris Cox, who has been at the school as a teacher and assistant principal for 29 years.
“He had been sick, and I asked him how he was doing,” Cox said. “He said, ‘I don’t want to talk about me. I am going to be fine. I want to talk about the school and how we are going to help these kids and get the parents involved.’”
His company sponsored field trips for students with good grades and high character. Over the years, the students have gone to the Little White House in Warm Springs, to the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta and many other places.
“We got to do many things we would have never been able to do without his help,” Cox said.
And the investment in education paid off. Rothschild Middle, which has more than 90 percent of its students on free or reduced-price lunches, has made the Adequate Yearly Progress, mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the last three years.
Rothschild’s commitment to public education was stronger than anyone Cox knows who isn’t an educator.
“It’s not just the money,” Cox said, “it’s what he has meant to this school in spirit.”
Business and service
Rothschild served in the U.S. Army for four years during World War II.
He fought in the Northern France Campaign in the summer of 1944. A captain, Rothschild earned the Bronze Star.
“David is a very patriotic person,” Alan Rothschild said. “He is a strong believer in our public institutions — the rule of law and judicial system and public education.”
Friedmann called Rothschild “a patriot.”
“Barbara told me he salutes the flag every time he sees it,” Friedmann said.
He was also a successful businessman.
The David Rothschild Company was founded in 1888 in Columbus by Rothschild’s grandfather as a dry goods wholesale company.Irwin, Maurice and Jac Rothschild, the sons of the founder, reinvented the firm as a textile company and weaver of upholstery.
David Rothschild II was part of the third generation to run the company. After World War II, Irwin’s sons Norman, David II, and Irwin, Jr. and Jac’s son Benno joined the business and opened sales offices and warehouses across the country.
In 1980, David Rothschild bought the company and was chairman until his death. His sons Walter and David III now run the business, which has a North Carolina mill.
He has been a civic-minded businessman.
The later years
Rothschild fought the institutions he had served when he felt the local library board had backtracked on a promise to build a park at the Columbus Public Library.
He sued the library board, of which he had been a member, and the school board in 2007.
Rothschild and other plaintiffs in the suit claimed that residents were promised a park in the campaign for the 1999 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, which funded the library’s construction. Superior Court Judge Doug Pullen ruled Aug. 29, 2007, that the plaintiffs didn’t have the authority to sue the government. His decision was upheld by a three-judge appeals court panel, and the full appeals court declined to hear the case, prompting Rothschild to appeal to the state Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court’s decision in June. The case has been sent back to Superior Court and is pending.
Schley, as a member of the school board, found himself on the receiving end of Rothschild’s legal challenge.
“We have remained friends throughout,” Schley said. “I have explained to him repeatedly that he was wrong. But he sets his mind to something and he is like a rock, you can’t change his mind.”
The rabbi said it is another sign of Rothschild’s determination.
“He sees it one way and he is not going to give up,” Friedmann said. Cohn said he was not surprised Rothschild took the school board and library board to court over a dispute about whether or not a public park was promised on the library site.
“I am not surprised at all because that’s what he believed in,” Cohn said. “He believed with a passion what he believed in.”
Rothschild is survived by his wife of nearly 60 years, Barbara Galeski Rothschild, daughter Aleen Rothschild-Seidel of Bethesda, Md., and three sons, David Rothschild III of Columbus, Walter G. Rothschild of Winston-Salem, N.C., and John L. Rothschild of Elkridge, Md.