A gentle, quiet pillar of the community, Ted Altier, died June 21 after a long and brave struggle with illness.
Ted epitomized a special kind of Rochester civic leadership: fiercely committed, and fiercely low profile. He was active in numerous organizations --- board member of the Rochester Philharmonic, WXXI, the Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency, the YMCA, RIT, the Visiting Nurse Service, and many others --- but that kind of list tells little about him. Plenty of people could match his résumé and leave no legacy. Ted, says his wife Betty, accepted positions on a board “because he believed in the organization and wanted to support it.”
And he seemed to be interested in everything. His education included studying mechanical engineering at the University of Rochester, a bachelor’s degree at West Point, back to the U of R in the 1950s for Russian and financial management, Italian and French at Nazareth and Fisher in the 1990s. “He was always learning,” says Betty, “always very open to new ideas.”
While Ted, like many veterans, talked little about it, he served in the Infantry in World War II, was captured, and spent time in a German prison camp. On a long list of his honors, the Purple Heart and Bronze Star are there, alongside the Rochester Chamber of Commerce’s Civic Medal and the Brighton Rotary’s Citizen of the Year award.
The West Point experience, says Betty, was formative: “He was very devoted to and very much shaped by West Point. The West Point motto --- duty, honor, country --- meant more to him than the military. These are the principles that guided him in his business, in the community, and with his family.”
He became deeply involved in community work, says Betty, “because his business had done well in the community, and he wanted to give something back.”
It was through his business --- Altier Shoes, which Ted and his brother Richard ran after their father’s death --- that many Rochesterians knew Ted. While they may not have known him personally, they knew him through the unique character of the Altiers’ stores. Free first shoes for babies, a record of children’s shoe sizes kept up to date: Sure, it was good marketing (“He was a good businessman,” says Betty), but these were hometown-store gestures that felt personal and genuine.
For years, Altier’s resisted the growing retail trend and refused to open on Sunday: a losing battle, says Betty. And that wasn’t the only losing battle Ted embraced. In the 1970s, he served on a committee that proposed a two-tier form of metropolitan government for Monroe County. Later, he was president of the Urbanarium, an organization founded to help community leaders and residents find a way to discuss, rationally, such crucial issues as land use and city-county cooperation.
Nationally, unethical business dealings continue to make the news. Locally, some of the community’s most crucial problems continue to be ignored. And many business leaders long ago washed their hands of community involvement.
Ted Altier has left a legacy and an example that this community badly needs.
--- Mary Anna Towler