Elected three times as a Regent on the New York State Board of Regents, Roger Tilles has been representing Long Island’s educational interests since April 2005. He also serves as a patron of the arts in our area. After serving as director of his family’s investment company, he retired to focus on philanthropic and educational initiatives, such as creating the Long Island Arts Alliance and his involvement with the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts at LIU Post. We recently caught up with Tilles to discuss his work and charities.
Why is philanthropy important to you? I believe my religious upbringing was important to my understanding of giving back as an adult. I’ve been involved since I was 5 years old in different kinds of philanthropy. It’s very important for our family to be able to not just write a check, but to get involved. Why are the arts so important to you? Without the arts, I’m not sure I would be as aware of the world, as good a citizen, as good a person, because I wouldn’t be complete. The arts have really enabled me to express things and to hear things that I wouldn’t otherwise encounter.
Have you taken part in the arts? I got involved with my introduction to music, [was] very active in the glee club, started a barber shop quartet and then my singing got me into Amherst College. When I went to law school, I became an usher at the May Festival in Ann Arbor, which was the Philadelphia Orchestra. The music moved me so tremendously that I became passionate about the kinds of music I listen to, not just perform.
What do you like most about representing LI on the Board of Regents? It gives me an opportunity to be active in schools and libraries and museums and higher education. As a result, I get to meet fantastic people – wonderful people – in education at all levels and I get to enhance my own ability and love of the arts because I’m chair of the Cultural [Education] Committee. One of the goals that I’ve had that I think has been successful is to bring the arts and the culture of New York State into the public schools.
What is your goal for the LI Arts Alliance? We wanted to highlight and have all our arts institutions collaborate with each other, cooperate with each other, market together and create education opportunities, which is what the Long Island Scholar-Artist [program] is.
What philanthropic effort are you most proud of? I started an organization 31 years ago with Monsignor Tom Hartman – Father Tom. We both realized that we grew up in pretty much unique ethnic communities. He was in an Irish Catholic community in East Williston and I was in the Jewish community of Great Neck. And it wasn’t until we went to college that we met many people of another faith. By then, it was us and them or we and they. We said, “Let’s try to do something earlier.” We started a program called Project Understanding, which just now finished its 30th year of taking Catholic and Jewish kids to do projects together on Long Island … and then sending them for almost two weeks to Israel.
Do you have any sayings? Growing up, somebody told me, “Do the best you can with what you have. And you don’t wish you had more. You just take what you have, and you do the best you can with it.” I found that that has been very successful for me in terms of getting things done and not just wishing for things.
You were quoted earlier this year referring to the Hempstead school district as “a zoo.” Do you regret that? I used the term in its general usage, which is a chaotic kind of place. Although some people took offense and said that I equated people in the district with certain animals in the zoo, I have gotten a lot of support from the black leadership in the community and across the state from people who said that they’re way off base if anybody calls me a racist because I have exhibited a great deal of time, energy and productivity in race relations. But also, jokingly, I could say, “Well, I should have probably called it a circus instead.” But then the clowns would have been offended.