Zachary Fisher still remembers how his bad knee disqualified him from serving his country during World War II.
"I could have cried," he says, recalling the day he was told he flunked the Marine Corps physical in 1942 because of his construction job injury. "I wanted to go defend my country."As a result, Fisher spent the rest of his life doing good deeds for his country, turning the wealth he earned as a developer into so much goodwill that he is being honored with the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest award for a civilian.
President Clinton will present Fisher with the medal on Monday at a New York ceremony to be attended by Defense Secretary William Cohen and the heads of all five branches of military service.
"I feel very humbled by it," the 86-year-old Fisher said during an interview Friday at his home in Westchester. "It is a privilege to live in this country of ours. They don't owe me a thing. I owe them."
Fisher is hardly a household name yet thousands have been touched by this publicity-shunning man.
"Zach Fisher is a great American hero," said James Kallstrom, the former head of the FBI in New York and one of Fisher's closest friends. "Zach and his wife, Elizabeth, have almost singlehandedly supported the U.S. military in hundreds of ways that could not have been funded through official channels. He's truly America's best friend."
In 1983, when Fisher learned that 241 service personnel had been killed in the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, he sent each of the victims' children - all 113 of them - a check for $10,000 for their college education.
Six years later, when a gun turret explosion killed 47 sailors aboard the battleship Iowa, Fisher sent $25,000 to each family that lost a son or husband in the disaster.
Since then, he has sent more than 600 checks of more than $10,000 each to the families of other military personnel who have been killed.
"I always felt that I owed something to the men and women who defended my freedom and allowed me to become so successful in such a great country," the soft-spoken Fisher said. "Our military are forgotten during peace time. We need to be just as patriotic during peace as in war."
Fisher, the son of a poor Russian immigrant, dropped out of school at 16 to help his family start a small construction business. He graduated from bricklayer to developer and today his work can be seen in numerous buildings in the Manhattan skyline.
None of the buildings is as popular as the aircraft carrier Intrepid, an enormous floating museum permanently docked in the Hudson River on Manhattan's West Side.
The ship that survived Japanese Kamikaze attacks during World War II, and picked weary astronauts out of the Atlantic after early space voyages, was headed for the scrap heap until Fisher rescued it in 1982. He spent 17 years and $25 million of his own money to turn it into an air-sea-space museum as a tribute to the thousands of military men and women he considers his extended family.
One of the ways in which Fisher has helped military families came about after he met a woman who could not afford to stay at an expensive hotel near Bethesda Naval Hospital, where her husband was critically ill. She had to take two buses each day to get to the hospital from a less-expensive hotel.
Fisher started the Fisher House program, building 28 mansions on the grounds of military hospitals across the country where relatives can stay while they visiting their loved ones. So far, more than 30,000 families have stayed at the houses.
Fisher brushes off the attention, saying: "I don't feel like I have done that much."
His only regret:
"I would have loved to have been a general."