Unsung fortune: A rich man's secret

Untours' founder lives abundantly on little as his wealth aids world.

Hal Taussig, 82 is devoted to living a simple life. Taussig gave away his last car to a hitchhiker in 1973 and commutes to work on a bicycle. (Max Levine / For the Inquirer)

Hal Taussig wears baggy jeans and fraying work shirts that Goodwill might reject. His shoes have been resoled three times. He bought his one suit from a thrift shop for $14.

At age 81, he doesn't own a car. He performs errands and commutes to the office by bicycle.

He lives on the outskirts of Media in a narrow wood-frame house that was built for mill and factory workers.

And he has given away millions.

Given the fortune that Taussig has made through Untours, his unique travel business, and has given away through the Untours Foundation, you could call him the Un-millionaire. If he so chose, he could be living in a Main Line mansion and driving a Mercedes. But he considers money and what he calls "stuff," beyond what he needs to survive, a burden, an embarrassment.

"He really walks the talk," says Judy Wicks, owner of the White Dog Cafe and a fellow member of the Social Venture Network, which applies capital to enterprises that reduce poverty and advance social justice.

"A lot of people donate money to the less fortunate but live in high style themselves. Hal sacrifices in his own life by living very simply in order to have more money to give away."

In many respects, he's a 21st-century Thoreau. "Let your capital be simplicity and contentment," the sage of Walden Pond wrote. "Those are my sentiments precisely," says Taussig, who has three children, five grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.

Taussig works three jobs:

He cares for Norma, his wife of 61 years, who was crippled by a stroke in 1999.

He helps run Untours, a tour-planning service that enables vacationers to experience foreign places deeply.

He directs the Untours Foundation, into which he pours all his profits - $5 million since 1992. The money is used to make low-interest loans to ventures and projects that help the needy and jobless - from a craft store in Hanoi to a home-health-care cooperative in Philadelphia.

"If capitalism is good, it should be good for the poor," Taussig declares. "I invest in entrepreneurial efforts to help poor people leverage themselves out of poverty."

As a boy, Taussig lived like a pioneer, in a log house on a cattle ranch in Colorado. His mother made his underwear from flour sacks. His Jewish grandfather married an evangelical Christian. Taussig was reared in a household where no one dare gainsay the Word of God, as plainly revealed in the Bible.

He was sent to Wheaton College in Illinois, "the Harvard of Evangelicalism," where he became a champion wrestler. Cursed by an independent mind, he balked at the story of Creation. It was preposterous, and he said so to God.

The Lord gave Taussig a pass, freeing him to craft his own faith.

"God created human beings in his own image. That is the heart of my faith," says Taussig, who now attends the First United Methodist Church of Media.

After college, Taussig returned to Colorado, where he and his brother resumed cattle ranching - and went broke.

"The cattle market took a nose-dive," Taussig says. "We invested in a sterile bull. We paid $5,700 for him, and sold him for hamburger."

Rather than feel ashamed, Taussig felt cleansed. He wanted, he says, to "own the failure."

"In America, we worship success, and making our way up, and leaving the masses behind," he says. "It's a shoddy ethic that leads us to value who we are by what we are."

In 1957, he came East to pursue a doctorate in American civilization at the University of Pennsylvania. During the day, he taught seventh grade in Upper Darby and later 11th grade in Springfield, Delaware County. After 10 years of teaching, he took a sabbatical, and drove a VW Beetle all over Europe.

Back home, Taussig wrote a book about his adventure, Shoestring Sabbatical. It inspired an idea: a travel agency that would enable tourists to get to know a place intimately by staying at least two weeks in a rented cottage, apartment or farmhouse. With a $5,000 loan from a friend, Taussig launched Untours in 1975.

"Europe is so enriching and rewarding, I decided to help others have a similar experience," he says. His ulterior motive: forging connections and understanding between people and cultures.

In the early '80s, Taussig was making more money from the tour operation than he needed or wanted. He decided to accept about $20,000 a year for his basic expenses.

First, Taussig gave the excess profits back to his customers. The next year, he split the profits among his employees. Finally, he decided to channel them into a foundation.

The motto of the Untours Foundation is "a hand up, not a handout." It provides low-interest loans, here and abroad, to create jobs, build low-income housing, and support fair-trade products: goods such as coffee that are sold at a price that guarantees producers and workers a fair wage and decent livelihood.

The loans, usually pegged to the U.S. inflation rate, range from $6,000 to $250,000. Over the last 15 years, about 50 individuals and organizations have benefited from Untours seed money. Some examples:

  • Home Care Associates of Philadelphia, a business cooperative of mostly former welfare recipients who provide health care to the homebound, $250,000.
  • A shop in Hanoi that provides a market for crafts made in Vietnamese villages, $8,000.
  • A water-bottling company in England that uses its profits to bring clean water to developing countries, $130,000.
  • A construction company in Media that builds handicapped-accessible housing while training the formerly unemployed, $275,000.

Along with the successes, there have been failures, but Taussig is heartened by the many ventures that have taken root, paid off their loans, and blossomed. In 1999, Untours received the Newman's Own/George Award for being "the most generous business in America." The award from Paul Newman and John F. Kennedy Jr., the late publisher of George magazine, came with a $250,000 prize, which the Taussigs donated to the foundation.

"He's authentic," says Elizabeth Killough, the foundation's associate director. "He has never tried to be famous or call attention to himself. For the first eight years, he didn't tell anyone about the foundation. It's always been very personal for him."

Taussig and his wife live on Social Security and savings from the modest wages Norma earned as a school secretary and Untours bookkeeper.

"In a world gone mad with greed, he really believes in the common good," says Bob Fishman, executive director of the nonprofit social service agency Resources for Human Development, who has worked with Taussig on several projects. "He doesn't do it to say 'I'm right and you're wrong,' but rather to show, in his own sweet way, that there's another path. By his example, he gets all of us to think, 'can't I do more?' "

Taussig does not consider himself heroic or saintly.

"This is my way of finding meaning," he says. "This is how I get joy out of life. The widening gap between the rich and poor is not sustainable. I fear there will be a violent revolution if we don't find a solution to poverty in the world."

 


 

For more about Untours and the foundation, call 888-868-6871 or go to http://go.philly.com/untours


Contact staff writer Art Carey at 610-701-7623 or acarey@phillynews.com.