William J. Flynn:
Irish America Hall of Fame
A leader in business and a force for progress in the Northern Ireland peace process.
When William J. Flynn was celebrated in a special issue of Irish America in 2008, the outpouring of praise from both sides of the Atlantic was immense. Irish President Mary McAleese, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness, Edward Cardinal Egan, Governor Hugh Carey, and many more came forth with words of great appreciation for Flynn and all that he has done. Though certainly impressive and meaningful, none of this was all that surprising.
To say that William J. Flynn has embodied the American dream millions of immigrant parents have for their children is true – but it also understates all that he has accomplished. His story is one of determination and care; of no possibility overlooked and no opportunity abandoned. He has been a leader in business, a catalyst for peace, and he has always been equally committed to his native country and the land of his ancestors.
The Boy With a Calling
One of four children of Bill Flynn Sr. from Loughinisland, Co. Down and Anna Connors from outside Castlebar, Co. Mayo, Flynn grew up in the East Elmhurst section of Queens. His childhood spanned the years of the Great Depression, but Bill Sr. was fortunate enough to stay employed as a stationary engineer, something the family never took for granted.
At a young age, Flynn felt he had a calling. After attending Cathedral High School Preparatory Seminary in Brooklyn, Flynn went on to the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, Long Island to prepare himself for the priesthood. There he studied theology, language and philosophy, but he also came to the realization that the life of a priest was not his path. His real calling lay elsewhere.
It first took him to Fordham University where, having received an expansive education at the Seminary, Flynn went straight into a master’s program and earned his degree in economics. Fascinated by and talented in the field, he was accepted into a PhD. program and started teaching high school mathematics in New York City.
The following four years brought many changes to the young economics student’s life. In 1949, the Korean War began and Flynn took a break from his studies to enlist in the Air Force, stationed in Texas and Washington D.C. In 1953, he married his sweetheart Peg Collins, the Bronx born-and-raised daughter of immigrants from Co. Kerry. The war over, the two newlyweds were soon living on Long Island and starting a family.
The Student Turned Businessman
With a wife and children to support, Flynn made the tough decision to leave his doctorate thesis behind and enter the world of business. His first job was with the Equitable Life Assurance Society. There, his background in economics served him in good stead as he quickly discovered his skill in the insurance industry – expertly calculating risk on retirement and long-term insurance plans and developing the now standard practice of Guaranteed Insurance Contracts (GICs). He rapidly climbed the ranks, eventually becoming senior vice president of pension operations.
Flynn’s approach to business was always a human one. Colleagues called him a fair leader, attuned to the customer’s needs and concerns, which allowed him to look at the industry in ways that eluded others. In his 2008 interview with publisher Niall O’Dowd, Flynn offered his sage, down-to-earth business philosophy, culled from his experience at Equitable: “Greed is the biggest problem…Look at the recent mortgage crisis and all the Wall Street firms that overextended themselves. It’s the same mistake over and over…My advice is, don’t get greedy, help the other guy, and stay in the real world.” This approach served him well in his next position: president and CEO of the National Health and Welfare Insurance Company. Under Flynn’s direction, the small, struggling company became Mutual of America, the insurance giant we know today. One of his finest accomplishments in this role was to steer Mutual’s attention towards the non-profit sector, where it now provides pension plans for the employees of more than 15,000 charities throughout America. He was also responsible for the establishment of the impressive Mutual of America Building at 320 Park Avenue.
Flynn was right from the start in thinking that he had a calling, though it didn’t lie with the church, as he first believed. Throughout his professional career, Flynn was a leader and innovator. But the scope of his influence has traveled far beyond the world of business. The Mutual CEO also used his position of power in corporate America as a force for peace, communication and understanding in the social and political spheres
With his guidance, Mutual of America took on a significant philanthropic role, sponsoring landmark events and discussions such as the “First Liberty Summit” in Williamsburg, VA, the subsequent “First Liberty Forum” in New York, and the international “Anatomy of Hate” conferences hosted by the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. These events brought Nobel laureates, leading intellectuals and involved citizens together for important meetings of minds.
Flynn’s personal involvement ran even deeper. He became a board member of the Elie Wiesel Foundation and joined the National Committee on American Foreign Policy (NCAFP). When the NCAFP encountered financial difficulty in the late 80s, Flynn came to the aid of the nongovernmental organization. Shortly afterwards, co-founder George Schwab invited Flynn to assume the position of chairman, which he accepted and holds to this day.
Having already been party to many important conversations on the religious and political conflicts in the Middle East and South Africa, Flynn was drawn to and deeply affected by the troubles in Northern Ireland. As an advocate for human rights and peace, the son of two Irish immigrants couldn’t ignore the violence and discord.
In 1992, Mutual of America sponsored a conference in Derry, entitled “Living With Our Deepest Differences.” At this point too, many Irish political leaders were beginning to consider how Irish Americans could play a role in the path to peace. In New York, a small group began forming in response to Bill Clinton’s campaign promise that, if elected, he would devote attention to Northern Ireland. It was decided that in order to be successful they would need help from influential people within the Irish American community. Though he knew that public involvement could potentially pose a threat to his professional reputation and even his personal safety, Flynn became one of the Americans for a New Irish Agenda (ANIA), a group that included fellow Hall of Fame honoree Chuck Feeney, former congressman Bruce Morrison and publisher Niall O’Dowd.
In December 1993, the Downing Street Declaration granted the people of Northern Ireland the right to self-determination – to choose, by their own design, their sovereignty and political status. In the wake of this, Bill Flynn strove to facilitate what he wisely saw as the next vital step: communication. With the NCAFP, he decided to organize a conference in New York that would bring all of the major players in the conflict together, including Gerry Adams, the head of Sinn Féin; John Hume, leader of the SDLP; John Alderdice, head of the Alliance Party; and two Unionist leaders: the Reverend Ian Paisley, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and James Molyneaux the head of the Ulster Unionist Party.
Nothing like this conference had ever happened before. It took place at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria on February 1, 1994, attracting attendees, members of the press, and protesters from all sides. Though the Unionist leaders did not attend that day, the conference was deemed successful in its aim of establishing communication and negotiation as the way forward. Both Paisley and Molyneaux accepted invitations to speak at later dates.
The Peace Broker
A large part of Flynn’s efficacy was due to his businesslike, level-headed tactics: The Mutual CEO became, in a sense, a broker of negotiation and peace. He was invited, often with other members of ANIA, to Ireland both north and south for talks with the leaders of the various parties – all with an eye towards working up to a ceasefire.
In August of that year, the members of the group got word that they should return to Ireland for a meeting with the Sinn Féin leadership. In Belfast they met again with Gerry Adams, who announced to them that the IRA would soon be declaring a complete cessation of operations. In a true testament to Flynn’s non-partisanship, six weeks later he was also contacted by Gusty Spence and David Ervine of the Loyalist side. It was thus that the Catholic son of a man from Northern Ireland was invited to and present at the announcement of the Loyalist ceasefire, and was even consulted on its wording.
In the years that followed, Flynn remained an active part of the talks negotiations, often flying over to Ireland on a moment’s notice to help facilitate communication or smooth things. Martin McGuinness declared him to be “one of the heroes of the peace process.” The accolades are many and they continue to grow: Flynn was honored as Grand Marshal of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 1996, he holds seven honorary degrees from prestigious colleges and universities, and is the namesake of the recently launched William J. Flynn Center for Irish Studies at the University of St. Thomas. In addition, the businessman and peacemaker has also been a loving husband, father and grandfather. Flynn’s calling wasn’t confined to one area or institution; rather, he has been a leader in so many ways.