Interview: Jay Kislak 450th commission chairman

Historic City News recently received an interview with Jay Kislak, chairman of the St. Augustine 450th Commemoration Federal Commission, who was in St Augustine on Monday for photographs at the Spanish Constitution Monument in the Plaza.

The Federal Commission for the 450th Commemoration was enacted on March 30, 2009, when Congressional House Bill 146 became Public Law 111-11 by order of United States President Barack Obama.

The congressional act and public law created a 14-member Federal Commission appointed by the United States Secretary of the Interior, Kenneth Salazar. The commission provides support, resources and guidance for the St. Augustine 450th Commemoration.

Currently, in addition to the 450th Commission, Kislak serves as a member of the Board of Trustees for the National Park Foundation and also serves as a member of the Board of Trustees for the Eisenhower Fellowships.

Kislak was born and educated in Hoboken, New Jersey. He received a degree in economics from the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania in 1942 and immediately joined the Navy, serving as a naval aviator during World War II. After the war, Kislak entered the family business, real estate brokerage and mortgage banking founded by his father in 1906. In 1953, Kislak moved to Miami, Florida, where he started the J. I. Kislak Mortgage Corporation. Today, The Kislak Organization has extensive operations in real estate and financial services including mortgage banking.

Kislak is well known for his contributions to history through his collections of art and books as well as the exhibits that he has provided to the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. Throughout his life, Kislak has been successful; in his real estate and mortgage business and as a renowned collector.

During the interview, Kislak recalled the first piece that began his collecting fervor. When vacationing with his family in Boston, Kislak entered a bookstore called Goodspeed’s Bookstore, which had been a staple of Bostonian literature for three generations but is now out of business. Kislak ventured to the Americana department and told the clerk he was seeking a book on Florida history since he and his family lived in Florida. The attendant returned with a second edition of de la Vega’s account of the history of Florida. De la Vega, the son of an Inca, published the first edition in 1605. Kislak eventually acquired the first edition as well as the 1732 second-edition which came in two volumes.

His passion for collecting evolved and grew “like a bug” and now, Kislak has broadened his collection to include South Polar Expeditions. He explained that his passion for Florida history was so strong due to his childhood in the New England area. Kislak posited that, as Anglo-Saxon descendants, the New England history described the Mayflower and Jamestown as the first settlements of the New World, though even 100 years before Jamestown, there were settlements in Florida, such as St. Augustine, founded in 1565.

For the 450th Commemoration, Kislak noted that he is anticipating one event in particular. During 2012, the 200th anniversary of the Spanish Constitution will be remembered at a celebration in St. Augustine. Two years after the constitution was enacted, Spain ordered the monuments to be destroyed, but, “St. Augustine in typical fashion didn’t pay any attention,” Kislak said.

To better understand Kislak’s background, it is helpful to know about his experiences in World War II. He commented that it was there that he learned to fly aircraft and land on naval carriers in a time before radar existed. Kislak also said,” I first learned to take orders and then how to give orders. In becoming a naval officer, I learned a lot about leadership. Every order given and received is important to health, welfare and security to all involved.”

Finally, Kislak noted the importance of learning from past mistakes. Quoting from George Santayana, a Spanish-born American philosopher, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Kislak explained the importance for younger generations to listen and learn from their elders and choose to learn from their mistakes in order to grow and improve.

Photo credits: © 2012 Historic City News staff photographer

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