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THE PASSING OF GENERATIONS

NORMA LEE BLACK TAUSSIG — JUNE 2, 1923 TO JULY 22, 2015

HAROLD EDWIN TAUSSIG, SR. — NOVEMBER 23, 1924 TO JANUARY 11, 2016

          Harold Edwin Taussig, Sr., passed away at home in his sleep Monday, January 11, 2016. He was 91. His death was attributed to a collection of systemic failures we commonly call “old age”. Harold “Doc” Taussig was not the founder of Home At First, but he was its inspirational and philosophical source.

          In the late 1960s Taussig, his wife, Norma, and his younger daughter, Marilee, traveled extensively but inexpensively through Europe for most of a year. He was on sabbatical from his high school teaching job at Springfield High School in the Philadelphia suburbs. Already titled with a Ph.D (American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania), Taussig was accustomed to the “publish or perish” ways of the academic ladder. Some time after returning to the States, Taussig wrote a book, Shoestring Sabbatical, targeted for other academics who might want to travel overseas on their meager teaching stipends. The book, it turned out, had some appeal to other teachers, but found its way into the mainstream. By the mid-1970s – long before email – Taussig was hearing from a surprising number of non-academics also interested in traveling in Europe on a shoestring.

          Taussig started a hobby business and ran it first from his apartment. He thought he could supplement his wife's small income by helping friends and strangers travel to Europe independently and cheaply. The demand for his services grew, and by 1976 his company got Taussig’s undivided attention. He called it Idyll, Ltd. and moved it to a church facility in Media, PA.

          Taussig didn’t start out as a teacher or ever imagine he might become a travel guru for thousands of Americans. He grew up on a large cattle ranch in Colorado’s high country, a ranch started by his father and his father’s brother. The ranch – several thousand acres extending over 8,000 feet in altitude, surrounded by the Rocky Mountains just west of the Continental Divide – was as beautiful and as pristine as anything you may remember from early TV’s “Bonanza” series. Hal Taussig grew up a cowboy.

          Born in 1924, Taussig was just 17 when Pearl Harbor was attacked. He did sign up for military service before World War II concluded, learning to fly small planes with the US Army Air Corps, but he did not serve overseas. He did see action, however, when a single-engine plane he was flying lost power and he crashed, totaling the plane and injuring him slightly. But his most enduring action from his time in the Army came when Taussig married Norma Black, a local girl he met while stationed in west Texas.

          After leaving the service, the newlyweds returned to Colorado, and their first child, Harold, Jr. (Hal), was born. Soon they relocated to Illinois, so Taussig could get his undergraduate degree at Wheaton College. Their second child, Judi, was born during their time in Wheaton. Harold became a champion wrestler on Wheaton’s wrestling squad, and did very well in America’s national intercollegiate wrestling tournament.

          After college, the family moved back to Colorado, where they operated a ranch of their own close to his father and uncle’s big ranch near Kremmling. While Taussig hand built his ranch house above them, the family lived in its basement foundation. A third child, Marilee, was born while the family ran cattle in Colorado.

          After a half-decade of ranching, an expensive investment in what turned out to be an infertile breeding bull cost Taussig his ranch. Taussig took a job as a school teacher in the local school. At the start of the 1960s the family moved east to Pennsylvania when Taussig took a teaching job near Philadelphia and pursued his doctorate in American Studies. Taussig became a respected, innovative history teacher and wrestling coach at Springfield High School, and the family bought a home in Springfield. In 1966 Taussig was awarded his Ph.D from Penn. The two older children had the experience of being taught by their father at the high school. Marilee, who was taken out of the school to travel with her parents on the sabbatical trip to Europe, was effectively home-schooled by her father during the year abroad.

          Soon after returning from his sabbatical year in Europe, Taussig moved his family (now just Norma and Marilee – the older two kids were in college and did not return to live in the family home again) to Louisville, KY, where he had taken a teaching position at Kentucky Southern College, and then, after Kentucky Southern College closed its doors in 1971, found a job teaching at conservative, Roman Catholic Spalding College. Taussig found himself a very controversial figure on campus as an outspoken anti-war activist during the turbulent late-1960s and early-1970s. At first something of a curiosity, Taussig became a thorn in the side of the

 

Harold & Norma Taussig in 1971 with no idea how dramatically their lives would change.
Photo © Ron Fahnestock

Spalding College administration, and was fired before he could gain tenure.

          He and his wife moved back to southeastern Pennsylvania, where Norma found clerical work with the local schools and Harold found part-time night-school teaching at a community college. It was during this time that Taussig’s Shoestring Sabbatical was published. His hobby travel business started in his dining room in 1974.

          By the end of the 1970s the business had grown, and Taussig hired Fran Douglas and his wife Norma to help handle the operation in their small office in the Media Fellowship House. Both ladies were instrumental in developing the company. Norma managed the company books and, as her husband’s ownership partner, oversaw the financial operation with the carefully sharpened pencil of a survivor of the 1930s Dust Bowl. Fran brought a service-oriented ideal to the company, convincing the boss that providing services – including airline reservations and ticketing, on-site help overseas, helpful guidebooks – to Idyll’s customers would win their confidence and loyalty. Fran was right, and the company grew rapidly, building on a loyal, oft-returning customer base.

          Having endured failures as a rancher and as a college professor, Taussig was as surprised as anyone about his success in the travel business. In the days long before the internet, business was still done primarily by telephone and the post office, and by typewriter and mimeograph machine. As an academic, Taussig had lived in a publish-or-perish career world, and he applied his experience to his fledgling business. He courted and won over key publicity sources, including noted travel writer Arthur Frommer, TV’s Oprah Winfrey, and, especially, the respected LA Times travel editor Jerry Hulse, who wrote several feature articles about the eccentric rancher-cum-professor and his maverick ideas about international travel. Jerry became Taussig’s friend and sometime co-traveler, who relied on Harold for newsworthy, fresh insights. By 1985, Idyll’s Untours was a growth travel company well outside the industry’s mainstream. Running his business more than a little like a big ranch, Taussig’s employees were not unlike ranch hands working long hours for light wages but unified in their commitment to the company goals. Among the employees during the key growth years were his wife and partner Norma, both of Taussig’s daughters, a son-in-law (Judi’s husband), and, off-and-on, his nephew from California. Idyll, Ltd. was, like the ranch in Colorado, largely a family operation with hired hands.

          The 1980s was the heady decade of growth and expansion at Untours. A small starter program destination, Switzerland, had grown nearly exponentially for several years. New destinations, first Britain (London and Wales, followed by Scotland), then quickly Austria, and Germany were offered. The horizon appeared unlimited for Idyll, Ltd. Then, with the 1986 nuclear power plant disaster in Chernobyl and several terrorist hijackings in Rome and the Middle East occurring in the second half of the 1980s, the international travel boom to Europe saw its first declines in demand. At the time, these incidents seemed anomalies.

          In the early 1990s Harold Taussig, having read of several experimental businesses overseas, announced that he wanted to convert Idyll, Ltd. to an employee-owned business without a leadership hierarchy. Taussig himself, however, would remain owner and final decision-maker on all issues. When the employees voted to reject Taussig’s vision of the future, he reversed his field and installed a structured ladder of workers and managers. In 1992 he separated all of Idyll’s English-speaking program destinations in Britain and New Zealand out of Untours, giving them to his daughter, Judi, to run in a new, independent company she named Home At First. Over the next 23 years Idyll and Home At First cooperated, sharing customers on joint trips, and referring customers back and forth.

          As the 1990s progressed Taussig continued his exploration of experimental business ideas. His evangelical religious past had long combined with his attraction to political socialism. Suddenly richer than he had ever thought he would be – although not wealthy by any contemporary media standard – Taussig felt it important to use his money to help others. He started a foundation designed to give a leg up to struggling companies – domestic and around the world – by providing low-interest loans. He rejected the notion of leaving an inheritance, and swore to live as simply as possible with few possessions. His wife and co-owner, Norma, purchased the small two-story, wood-frame home where they would both live out their final years. Norma also owned their final automobile, a Toyota Corolla now twenty years old. Harold continued to be a familiar sight on his bicycle on the streets of Media until his late 80s. Fancy, new clothing and the trappings of a successful business owner were of little concern to him.

          In 1998 Taussig’s son-in-law, Ron Fahnestock, who had studied and wrestled under Taussig at Springfield High School in the 1960s and had worked at Untours since 1980, had founded the British travel programs, and who had directed the flagship Swiss Untour during the 1990s, ended his tenure with Idyll by mutual agreement, and went to work with his wife, Judi, as co-owners of Home At First. Also by agreement, a non-competitive arrangement was made, designed to keep Untours and Home At First as cooperating travel firms that would not offer travel to one another’s destinations but instead would continue to share customers and make referrals to one another. This agreement ended unexpectedly in July, 2015, when Idyll’s manager announced his unilateral decision to offer Untour travel to Ireland and London, two long-time Home At First destinations. Idyll, Ltd. owners Harold and Norma Taussig died not knowing of the action their company had taken to compete against their daughter’s company.

          The 2000s had brought both companies great challenges. The golden age of the 1980s was now a distant memory. The September 11, 2001, attacks and subsequent wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and against terrorism curtailed demand in international travel. The Great Recession of 2008 and subsequent economic slow-downs further reduced the numbers of Americans traveling overseas. In 1999 Norma Taussig retired from the office and soon after a stroke limited her mobility. Her husband Harold Taussig withdrew from daily participation in Untours operations not long after. His primary interests shifted to the Idyll Foundation and Norma's well being. The Idyll Foundation has struggled under what its manager, in public testimony, has called a "steep learning curve," losing millions in un-repaid loans.

          Despite the enduring physical limitations of her 1999 stroke, Norma Taussig lived an active intellectual life until her death. She watched her husband of more than six decades undergo failing health over the last half decade. She continued to defend and support him as they lived their final days at home together. During the final two years of her life, Norma found herself contesting a court petition filed by the Idyll Foundation insisting that her husband be declared incapacitated and his estate be managed by court-appointed guardians. In mid-2015, the Delaware County Pennsylvania Orphans Court did approve the appointment of guardians for Harold’s estate. Norma Taussig died at home on July 22, 2015. Soon afterwards, ownership of Idyll, Ltd. (Untours) was transferred to the Idyll Foundation.

          After his wife’s death, Harold Edwin Taussig, Sr., lived on at home to see another birthday, another Thanksgiving, another Christmas, and another New Year’s Day. With him at the end of his life was set of dedicated caregivers who had become part of his family, and very much the last of his ranch hands.

------------------
Ron Fahnestock
Editor

TRAVEL PULSE

          It has been a rough decade for many American families. The Great Recession has meant few — if any — family vacations since 2008, and, in the years following the September 11 attacks many families elected not to travel abroad out of concerns about terrorism. For some of us, finally, the American economy has begun to percolate again. For others, the precipitous stock market declines of the past 6 months have raised familiar fears. Most of our troops have come home from Iraq and our presence is declining in Afghanistan. Yes, ISIS has become the latest terror bogeyman, worrying us in Syria and Iraq as well as in Europe and perhaps elsewhere, and the news out of Iran and North Korea is mixed. The dollar continues its strong exchange position against the Euro and the British pound. Airfares to many destinations, including most in the British Isles, have not jumped as high as has been predicted. In fact, airfare sales have recently appeared that significantly reduce even high season travel to popular destinations including SCANDINAVIA, PARIS, ICELAND, IRELAND, WALES, rural ENGLAND, and LONDON. Many European countries need the economic shot in the arm American visitors bring. The welcome mat is out. The cost is down. The tide of world tensions ebbs and flows. Stock markets have their cycles. 2016 may be the year many Americans have been waiting for. It’s time to check off one or two items on your bucket list. And on those of your kids, too.

------------------
Ron Fahnestock
Editor

 

CHEAP ADVICE:

          For many of you these are trying economic times. Travelers travel. Money matters. The cost of travel retreated for the first time in decades in 2010 by previously unheard of percentages and has stayed low despite higher taxes on both sides of the ocean and — at times, but not at present — unfavorable currency exchange rates. The economy has been struggling. If you wait, you might be richer next year. But, you will not be younger — and probably not healthier or fitter — next year.

          It is time to begin thinking about your 2016 vacation. There will still be concerns over the economy. But, when the conversation turns to travel, please remember there is good news for 2016.

Happy HOLIDAYS from Home At First!

 

          This year, give your family a gift you’ll always remember: dare to discover new opportunities. Make a dream come true. Home At First provides flexible, independent travel tailored to your goals at dream locations throughout:

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