To hear Carol and Mort Siegler reminisce, one might wonder if they are talking about the same lifetime. Using words sparingly and eschewing any hint of exaggeration, Mort recounts his childhood in Jersey City, Cornell college days, wartime service as an Army Ordnance Officer in Detroit, and a career in construction. Carol on the other hand, bubbles with colorful detail, exciting stories of an exotic upbringing and adventures of a lifetime.
With time, it is apparent that there is no disconnect at all. The two have been partners since college in an elegant dance – Mort holding the frame with calm, cool confidence, while Carol adds the flare and fascination. It’s a dance lasting 67 years and counting.
Carol’s father started a successful textile venture in Havana, Cuba, in 1920 and brought his family there where they lived privileged lives within a thriving American colony community. Always attentive to her environment, she grew up bilingual with culturally sensitive and politically progressive viewpoints.
“I learned a lot from dinner table conversation where the news of the day was often about refugees from Europe prior to World War II,” Carol recalls. Their community banded together to accommodate and take care of recent arrivals who were destitute.
Raised in Jersey City, Mort’s family kept their regimented, hard-working Austrian traditions. His father ran a successful construction firm involved in the construction of the Holland Tunnel to Manhattan. However, music also filled their home. His father played violin, his mother was a coloratura soprano, and his sister played piano. “Nothing really stuck with me,” adds Mort. Instead, Mort focused on his engineering studies, earning a degree from Cornell University after the war. That’s where he met the beautiful young and spirited pre-med student, Carol.
After marriage, they settled in West Orange and commenced to raise three daughters – Jan, Kim, and Meg. Known as a quiet intellect, Mort grew the family business and expanded into commercial and industrial real estate. He lent his quiet intellect to crafting extraordinary deals and win-win negotiations that landed him the reputation as a “mover and shaker.” (Please note that the laudatory adjectives come from Carol, not Mort!)
Mort later moved to the public sector, managing a $300 million budget as the Director of the Division of Building and Construction for the State of New Jersey. While Mort may have lacked musical talent, Carol is quick to point out that Mort is an excellent cook and served on the board of Restaurant Associates. This might just be a footnote, but it explains how this no-nonsense businessman fits so well with an ebullient arts and human rights advocate.
Having been immersed in dance, arts, and music as a child, Carol still uses her keen visual eye as an interior designer—their home on the 20th floor is stunning. Volunteer work included founding a cooperative nursery school and The Creative Arts Group to provide art, dance, drama, and film experiences for school children, and serving as a Spanish interpreter for Planned Parenthood in Newark, New Jersey, in the late 50s.
When their youngest daughter was in college, the Sieglers found their time was spent more in their second home on Abaco in the Bahamas, a climate more reminiscent of Carol’s youth. They eventually explored both the east and west coasts of Florida by boat, searching for a possible full-time southern home. Honing in on Naples or Sarasota, Mort and Carol inspected both during a land-based road trip and much preferred Sarasota’s inclusive community. They set down their roots on Longboat Key in 1990, immersed themselves in the arts, and continued their fifty-year commitment to the American Jewish Committee (AJC) (they both still serve on the national board). As a result of their work with the AJC, St. Leo University’s Center for Catholic Jewish Studies was founded in the Siegler’s very own Longboat Key apartment, where they even served as co-chairs of the board at one time.
Continuing their commitment to the Florida community, Mort served on the board of the Sarasota Orchestra, while Carol served on the board of the Asolo Rep and even had the opportunity to travel back to Havana with the Sarasota Ballet. When the Ballet hosted a trip to Cuba, the group met with Alicia Alonso of the famed Cuban National Ballet, who is just a few years older than Carol. “I was surprised she remembered me from the days we were ballet students together,” shared Carol.
The arts for children are a more visible community commitment, but Carol’s voice took on a more urgent tone when she spoke of human rights, crisis relief, and human services. Just as the expatriate community in Havana took care of the dire needs of refugees, Carol and Mort have extended themselves in myriad ways throughout their lives to fill in the gaps. Citing the Herald Tribune’s Season of Sharing endeavor, Carol mentioned just a couple of recent cases Mort has supported: destitute NYC firefighters relocating to Sarasota, and paraplegic twins whose mother needed housing. The Children’s Guardian Fund, the supporter of the Guardian Ad Litem program providing resources that fill the basic needs of children in foster care, is another focus of their time and attention.
Through the years, their dance together has progressed from career and family to new homes and endeavors. Yet holding between them a mutual love for the arts and commitment to making the world just a little bit better for those who could use a little help, Carol and Morton Siegler still make it all look easy.