Helen “Happy” Reichert ’25, who was Cornell’s oldest living alumna, is still making contributions to her alma mater — even in death. Before she died Sunday, Reichert had specifically requested that her obituary ask friends and family to donate to Cornell Medical College in lieu of flowers.
Reichert died in her New York City apartment at the age of 109. Throughout her life, Reichert promoted a rigid recipe for success: chocolate truffles, hamburgers, Budweiser beer, cigarettes and New York nightlife. Strictly forbidden were vegetables, exercising, getting up early and complaining.
A lifelong New Yorker, Helen Faith Keane Reichert had been called “Happy” since she was born to Jewish Polish immigrants on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1901. Happy was famous for her longevity and positive attitude.
“She was the life of the party, the center of attention, and a master entertainer and story-teller who could captivate a space at nine or 109,” said Vicky Kahn ’09, her great niece and former Business Manager of The Sun.
For years, researchers studied Happy and her three siblings, all of whom are centenarians. At one time, the Kahn quartet was the oldest group of four siblings in the U.S. They made appearances on Good Morning America and CBS Evening News, as well as in The Wall Street Journal, NPR, Time Magazine and CNN.
Reichert graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the College of Home Economics.
While on East Hill, she lived in Risley Hall, worked in the cafeteria to pay tuition, started a clothing business and rowed for the women’s crew team when women wore bloomers and sweaters to practice. IvyLeagueSports.com called her “arguably the program’s most well-known alumna.”
Reichert never let gender or religious discrimination impede her goals, according to her great nieces. When Collegetown realtors refused to lease to a Jewish woman, she changed her name from Kahn to Keane.
Although she was a certified psychologist, after graduation Reichert worked as a copywriter. She later became a professor of fashion marketing at New York University. Holding the post for more than 30 years, Reichert gathered a loyal following of students who each brought news articles and clippings about Reichert’s life to her 109th birthday party last year.
“Students were very important to her and she possessed a lifelong love for learning,” Kahn said.
During Cornell reunions, Reichert often stayed an extra day to finish reading all the books she had checked out from the library, according to Vice President for Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy ’73.
A cosmopolitan fashionista, Reichert started a radio program called FYI: The Helen Faith Keane Show by convincing the network’s executives to highlight women’s style. But Happy quickly decided to tackle tougher feminine issues like breast cancer and sexual taboos. The show won McCall Magazine’s Golden Microphone, the equivalent of an Emmy for radio.
“In a day when women didn’t have careers, she was an independent, innovative pioneer who wasn’t afraid to push boundaries and make a name for herself,” Kahn said.
Later, Reichert founded the Round Table of Fashion Executives and in her 80s traveled the world, visiting countries in Europe, Asia and Africa. When she attempted to sign up for a hiking expedition through the Middle East at 90, the travel agency declined to admit such an elderly woman. Reichert promptly received a special note of permission from her physician and went anyway.
Dr. Mark Lachs, co-chief of the division of geriatrics and gerontology at Weill Cornell Medical College, said he attributes her longevity to genetics and “adaptive competence,” or the skill of moving past life’s hardships.
Reichert took her husband’s death, a mild stroke and myriad unexpected curveballs in stride, according to Kahn.
“No obstacle was too hard for her to overcome,” Elizabeth Kahn, her great niece, said. “She had this frivolous sort of attitude, like when in the late 80s she shaved her head and wore a wig because it was fun.”
When Happy married Philip Reichert ’23, a cardiologist and a founding member of the American College of Cardiology, she began a line of 14 Cornellians, which includes Kai Keane ’14 and Prof. Emeritus of Art, Architecture and Planning Mark Keane ’79. Reichert donated her husband’s medical equipment, a suite for visiting scholars and a Steinway baby grand piano in the Becker House. Additionaly, she left her body for future scientific studies.
Last fall, she served as honorary chair of the Cornell Sy Katz ’31 Parade that begins after the Cornell-Columbia football game. Decorated in red and white, she wheeled down Fifth Avenue with Governor David Paterson and the Big Red Marching Band.
Reichert maintained a close relationship with President David Skorton, who wished her family his condolences Sunday, according to Simeon Moss ’73, deputy University spokesperson. Moss described Reichert as “a great lady and a true Cornellian.”
“Cornell was really important in shaping her as a young women and one of the things that really bonded us,” Vicky Kahn said.
Reichert’s sharp wit and affability left perhaps the most memorable mark on those who called her a friend.
“She had an incredible vitality, read constantly, and had a wonderful sense of humor,” Murphy said. “Last holiday season, I received a card from her that said ‘Doing Fine at 109!’ and that really says it all.”