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A Toast to Michael Rubinger

Hundreds of colleagues and friends gathered to honor Michael Rubinger, LISC president and CEO, with glowing tributes, a community development fellowship in his name, and a dog—yes, a dog—on the eve of his retirement. A recap of the celebration, and a video charting Rubinger’s career at LISC, describe his extraordinary contribution to neighborhood renewal.

He wanted nothing showy or elaborate. But at a spirited farewell party atop Rockefeller Center on Tuesday evening, like it or not, Michael Rubinger was the man of the hour.

A fan letter from a former president, praise—and ribbing—from former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, and heartfelt appreciations by Rip Rapson of the Kresge Foundation and Sister Mary Scullion of Project Home punctuated the celebration of LISC’s president and CEO, who will step down in June. And as the 350 guests from every era and facet of his career cheered, the Michael Rubinger Community Fellowship was unveiled in his honor. The new program to support professional development for local community leaders is already endowed with $2.4 million, and is still growing.

But the biggest surprise of the evening may have been a leash embellished with the LISC logo: “We got you a dog!” announced Michael Levine, LISC’s head counsel. “We know we will miss you, and we hope this gift helps you miss us a little less.”

Michael Rubinger receives a dog bed and leash—with a dog to follow—from LISC's Suzanne Anarde, Oramenta Newsome and Michael Levine.
Michael Rubinger with board members Rip Rapson and Dean Esserman
Robert Rubin and Michael Rubinger
LISC staff members Kesha Williams, Christine Bryant, Jessica Boykin
Michael Rubinger with Mary Balkema and Chuck Vliek

Ribbing and dogs aside, the prevailing theme of the night’s tributes was Rubinger’s uncanny vision for revitalizing the country’s most disinvested neighborhoods—and his transformative impact on the field of community development. “He doesn’t have a salesman’s personality,” said Rubin, who has led the LISC board for the 17 years Rubinger has been CEO. “But he engages through his strong substantive expertise, his persistence and his quietly wry and irreverent sense of humor. And that has been enormously successful.”

So successful, as every speaker noted, that Rubinger leaves LISC in its best financial position ever and as a consummate innovator in the industry. Rip Rapson put it like this:  “Michael helped community development escape the monoculture of housing deals and arguably invented comprehensive community development.”

For Sister Mary, who has worked with Rubinger for decades, his instinct for novel development strategies, and his powers of persuasion, are unmatched. “He can see things that many of us can’t see, and he can get us to do things that many of us thought impossible.” Anyone lucky enough to have worked with him, she added, knows he has three superpowers: “One is, Michael cares deeply. In fact, he has a heart of gold. Two, he has staying power. And three, Michael only has valued partners and friends. Once you’re on his team, you’re there for a lifetime.”

When Rubinger finally took the podium, amid loud applause, he captured the poignancy of the evening by paraphrasing Tom Hanks’ character in “A League of Their Own”: "There’s no crying in community development,” he quipped. True to form, he also conferred the credit for LISC’s achievements to talented staff, past and present, and to the monumental work of community leaders “who do what I could never do.” In fact, he attributed his career to the good fortune of “always being at the right place at the right time, like Zelig."

But for all the introspection, Rubinger and those honoring him turned again and again to optimism about the future of LISC’s mission. “Your legacy is going to continue through all of us and through many more who aren’t here today,” said Sister Mary. “You’ve ignited in us the idea that the American dream—of equal opportunity for all—is up to us to make come true. And because of you, we know it’s possible.”