John Fitzpatrick: Hotelier & Humanitarian

John Fitzpatrick. Photo: Kit DeFever.
John Fitzpatrick. Photo: Kit DeFever.

By Kristin Romano, Contributor
April / May 2013

John Fitzpatrick is one of the most down to earth people you could meet. When he walks into a room he instantly puts you at your ease. Perhaps it’s a talent that he has developed over the years from being in the hospitality industry. He is the president and CEO of Fitzpatrick Hotel Group, N.A., but there more to it than that. He is genuinely interested in people and though it’s his business to meet and greet, behind the scenes he is just as likely to be helping out someone or some group that needs a hand.

John was raised in the hotel business, the second eldest of five children of Paddy and Eithne Fitzpatrick who owned Killiney Castle Hotel in Co. Dublin, Silver Spring Cork and Fitzpatrick’s Shamrock Hotel in Bunratty, Co. Clare.  But he did not have his career handed to him on a plate. He began by mowing the lawn at Killiney Castle during the summers when he was a teenager. Eventually, he moved on to washing dishes in the hotel kitchen and from there onto washing glasses and, eventually, when he was 17, to mixing drinks behind the bar, working every weekend while he was still in school.

“Dad was always tough on us. He said, ‘if you want to have money you have to work for it,’” John recalled in an interview with Irish America. But even back then as a teenager, his favorite part of the job was meeting customers.

Determined to make his own way, and feeling that he had learned all he could in Ireland, he enrolled at the University of Las Vegas’ prestigious hotel management course. From there, he expanded his knowledge by working at two Chicago hotels before returning to Ireland.

But the U.S. was never far from his mind. In 1990, with his father’s blessing, he began considering various American cities as potential hotel sites, eventually choosing New York and purchasing a building at 57th Street and Lexington Avenue. To save money, he lived in the building as he oversaw its renovation.

Fitzpatrick’s Manhattan opened its doors in December 1991 and very quickly became the Irish hotel in New York. Albert Reynolds, who was then Taoiseach, stayed there. Then Mary Robinson, who at the time was President of Ireland, paid a visit. Soon it became the de rigueur for visiting Irish heads of state and celebrities, including Gregory Peck, to choose Fitzpatrick’s. Seven years later, John opened another New York hotel, Fitzpatrick’s Grand Central, on 44th Street.

“John is know to be a warm and gracious host. He used these skills to achieve success as a hotelier and, perhaps more importantly, to reach out to all sides in the Peace Process. There were no ‘Peace Walls’ needed in the lobby bar of John’s hotel. Late nights brought the sounds of friendship and understanding from all quarters,” said Tom Moran, chairman and CEO of Mutual of America, who himself, worked tirelessly for Northern Ireland behind the scenes.

In the aftermath of September 11,  John again stepped to the fore. The hotel, with one of the few working phone lines, began receiving calls from all over Ireland, from parents who had children in New York. Regulars rushed to the hotel’s bar, asking John to take their names down, knowing relatives would call. Fitzpatrick worked with the Irish Consulate that day and the following days, exchanging lists of names, and helping stranded Irish visitors find accommodations, inviting them to sleep in the lobby of Fitzpatrick’s Manhattan when all other resources were exhausted.

John was very close to his mother, Eithne, a former Miss Ireland, she worked alongside her husband, using her great eye for detail and interior design as they built their hotel business. When she passed away in 1994, John wanted to make sure she was remembered, so he founded The Eithne Fitzpatrick Memorial Fund in her honor. With the death of his father in 2001, the fund became the Eithne and Paddy Fitzpatrick Memorial Fund. The fund’s mission is to “make a significant positive impact on the lives of those in need.”  Among its current projects are the Integrated Education Fund, which strives to integrate the education system in Northern Ireland, and the Corrymeela Community, which promotes reconciliation across social, religious, and political divides in the North.

In addition to these peace and reconciliation initiatives, the fund, which has raised $1.3 million to date, also supports Barretstown, a summer camp for seriously ill children.

In 2011, Fitzpatrick participated in RTÉ’s version of Secret Millionaire, traveling to the Muirhevnamor housing estate and Coxs Demense in Dundalk, Co. Louth. For the first time in 20 years, the man who describes himself as “married to his work” was without his Blackberry as he spent eight days in Muirhevnamor pretending to film a documentary and getting to know the people in the housing estate. In the end, he gave away a total of €20,000 to the Craobh Rua Community House, €15,000 to senior citizen organization Cuidigh Linn, and €2,000 to O’Hanlon Park Boxing & Fitness Club. His donations were matched by the Eithne and Paddy Fitzpatrick Memorial Fund.

John forged lasting bonds with a number of the community members. Through Cuidigh Linn, he met an elderly couple, Tim and Diane, both of whom are in wheelchairs. After  the show, he assisted in lobbying the local government to provide them with a wheelchair-accessible house, which they have since moved into. One boy from the Craobh Rua program, Joel Maguire, is a few steps closer to achieving his dream of becoming a singer, thanks to lessons and encouragement from John.

For his contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process, Queen Elizabeth II awarded him an OBE in 2008. In 2010, he was named Irish American of the Year by this magazine. In 2011, Queen’s University Belfast presented him with an honorary Doctorate of Science in Economics.  He is also a recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor. And as we go to press we learn that John has been named Chairman of The American Ireland Fund, which to date has raised $430 million for projects that promote peace and culture in Ireland.

Yet, for all the honors and accolades he has received, it’s safe to say that the greatest reward for John Fitzpatrick, is the one he gets from giving back.

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