Feb 10

Extraordinary American

Wednesday, February 10, 2016 3:50 PM


In many ways, John J. “Jack” Schiff typified that once very large and now rapidly dwindling group of extraordinary Americans that Tom Brokaw so aptly characterized as “the greatest generation.” Like so many of those brave souls in those troubled times when Nazis and Fascists and other monsters roamed the earth, Jack left a promising business in Cincinnati to don his nation’s uniform in March 1942.

Because it was not in Jack Schiff’s character to tell others of his achievements, we cannot know the full extent of his contributions to the war effort and can only piece together his service by relying on the available fragments. We know for certain that he served with honor as an officer in the U.S. Navy and that he was very proud of his service. We know that he attended the Navy Supply Corps School at Harvard University and then served as a paymaster in New Orleans before going to England, where he played a role in preparing the complex logistical aspects of the D-Day invasion. We know that he was present at the liberation of Paris, later served in occupied Germany, and left the Navy in January 1946. From what little we know, it appears that Jack Schiff served as so many do—significantly, but in the background. War is a fickle thing, and who gets to slay the dragon and who must sharpen the sword is largely a matter of chance.

Yet whatever the circumstances of his service, Jack never forgot his time in the Navy and often made it clear that he viewed it as an honor and a privilege. He once said, “One of the things you learn in the Navy, whether you like it or not, is to take orders. The more we observe discipline, the more we are successful.” He took that advice to heart and earned a reputation as a man with an exceptional work ethic.

Jack Schiff selflessly dedicated himself to the Navy and related organization even after his death in 1998. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

Jack Schiff selflessly dedicated himself to the Navy and related organizations even after his death in 1998. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

Like so many others of that great generation, Jack got on with his life after the war, helping to build a stronger nation by living the American dream. Great success in the insurance business allowed him to turn his good fortune toward philanthropic endeavors, and he often donated significant sums of money and much of his valuable time to worthwhile causes.

The Navy is among the many beneficiaries of Jack’s generosity. He donated both time and money to a number of Navy organizations, making things happen that otherwise might not have been feasible. Among many other contributions, he provided vital support for the commissioning of the attack submarine USS CINCINNATI (SSN-693), he served on the National Board of Directors of the Navy League and as a trustee of the USS CONSTITUTION Museum, and his support and counsel to the U.S. Naval Institute earned him an appointment as Honorary Commodore in 1991.

Although nothing more was expected of him, Jack Schiff demonstrated a kind of quiet heroism by continuing to give back to the nation and to the Navy in a multitude of ways long after hanging up his uniform for the last time. His selfless service and his generosity earned him the respect of all who knew him and caused the Secretary of the Navy to award him the Navy’s Superior Public Service Award in 1997. Although he consistently avoided personal recognition for his philanthropic work, today there is a Jack Schiff Memorial Library at the St. Mary’s Submarine Museum in Georgia, and the U.S. Naval Institute’s board room prominently bears his name.