For Milton Zipper the key to a long and well-lived life was the willingness to venture the road less traveled.
The son of working-class parents, Zipper took an unorthodox path to success. He accepted jobs in far-flung corners of the world, becoming an international traveler, an expert in South American and Central American finance and, ultimately, a prominent Long Island accountant whose love of exotic plants and animals led to the construction of a huge private tropical greenhouse filled with songbirds surrounding the backyard pool at his home in Lattingtown.
"My father was global way before the term global was popular," daughter Lorie Hentrich of Deer Park said of her father this week. "He was so interested in new things, new people, new ventures that he never thought about fear, never let fear control his life. He always said, 'You have to take a risk. It if fails, it fails. If you fail, you fail. But take the risk.'"
Zipper died of heart failure on July 22 at his home in Naples, Fla. He was 102.
From Oyster Bay to Caracas
Zipper was born April 20, 1917, in Oyster Bay. His father worked seven days a week at his tailor shop in the town and he was the middle of three children, with an older brother, Benjamin, who went on to become a prominent Nassau County judge, and a younger sister, Estelle. He attended Columbia University following his graduation from Oyster Bay High School, daughter Carol Towne of Miller Place said.
Then in 1941, with war raging in Europe and Asia but before the United States entered World War II, Zipper answered an ad in The New York Times for an accounting job with Johnson, Drake and Piper Inc., a Montana-based construction firm doing contract work for the military. He was put on a transport, a decomissioned World War I era steamship called the Siboney, and sailed out of New York Harbor on a voyage that would take him first to Brazil then to Cape Town, South Africa, before finally bringing him to Massawa, Eritrea, on the Red Sea, where construction workers for Johnson, Piper and Drake would help reopen the ancient port and build a base — all for transiting troops via air and sea from the United States en route to combat theatres in North Africa, the Mediterranean and Europe.
Eventually, Zipper found himself in Cairo, Egypt, with the title of chief accountant.
"The name of the game," he wrote in a wartime journal, "was to get the U.S. Army to reimburse all of our expenditures — and do it quickly. They would not pay if it [the expense report] had an erasure. So, I found a girl who could type all day without making a mistake."
Back in New York, world war still raging, Zipper attended an office Christmas party in December 1944 — and met his future wife, Bernice, his daughters said. Bernice Horeis had grown up in Omaha, Nebraska, and taken a job with a Midwest division of Johnson, Piper and Drake, which promptly sent her to work in their New York office.
The two were very different in many ways: Bernice had been raised a Christian Scientist; Milton was Jewish. Bernice loved to dance, Milton couldn't — at least, not very well, his daughters said. But it turned out Bernice and Milton both loved tennis and loved to swim, and they both loved to travel. And, they also loved each other.
On Sept. 1, 1945, the two got married in a civil ceremony before a justice of the peace in Manhattan. Then Zipper took a two-year contract with Price Waterhouse that saw him become a chief accountant at the company offices in Caracas, Venezuela.
There, Zipper quickly learned Spanish. [His daughters said he eventually became fluent in Spanish, Italian, French, Russian and said that he even spoke some German.] He learned nuances of the oil industry as he did work not only in Venezuela but in Panama, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina and Guatemala.
The key, daughter Lorie said, was that her father was always taking jobs no one else seemed to want. And because of that, he learned valuable accounting skills in areas where other had no expertise.
"Let me tell you this experience was one of the greatest times of our lives," Zipper wrote in a journal, recalling his time in Caracas before he and Bernice returned to the United States in late 1947. "We were young and receptive to every new experience. We rode every bus through its full schedule. We tasted new foods, drank the local beverage not caring what was in it. We played tennis on Christmas Day, we made lasting friendships. We learned to speak Spanish quickly."
Back in the States, the Zippers moved to Riverside Drive in Manhattan, where they welcomed the birth of daughter Carol in 1948 before moving to Huntington and later to a two-acre estate on Meudon Road in Lattingtown. Zipper started an international accounting firm in Oyster Bay — Milton Zipper, CPA — in 1949 and later saw the birth of twins Lorie and Devie in 1952.
A one-time district governor of Rotary International and recipient of a certificate of appreciation from the New York State Society of Certified Public Accountants, Nassau County Chapter, the Long Island chapter of the Institute of Management Accountants name an annual award for him: The Milton Zipper financial executive of the year award.
A 1954 article in Newsday detailed how Zipper helped uncover a scandal that led to the arrest of two Long Island-based union representatives for misuse of funds. Zipper told Newsday he had warned one of the officials from the International Hod Carriers, Building and Common Laborers Union, that his accounting records were "incomplete, inaccurate and, in the case of the welfare and pension funds, virtually nonexistent" — but said the official in question had ignored his report and recommendations, eventually leading to the arrest.
Zipper always was a stickler for details and for honesty, his daughters said.
"He was an extremely honest person," daughter Carol said, adding: "That was major to him, to be honest. His father was such an honest man and that was something his father taught him. The importance of being honest."
As daughter Lorie said: "People in the federal government once nicknamed him 'The Honest Abe of the accounting field' and my father always said he didn't know if that was a compliment or a complaint."
Zipper would go on to own real estate with P. James Roosevelt, the millionaire philanthropist who was a cousin of President Theodore Roosevelt, and travel the world, including treks to Costa Rica, Honduras, Italy, Iran, Germany and Vietnam, his daughters said.
Later, Zipper built a huge greenhouse surrounding his in-ground pool in Lattingtown, filling the building with a huge variety of exotic plants and birds. There were bougainvillea, 15-foot tall Tropicana rose bushes, scarlet anthuriums, flowering plumeria, night-blooming cereus, bauhinia, bird-of-paradise, mandevilla, clerodendron, sago palms, Hawaiian tree fern, Malaysian rhododendrons, tibouchina and orchids, according to a Jan. 11,1998, article in Newsday, which called it "an enclosed tropical setting worthy of a remake of 'South Pacific.' "
But it wasn't just plants. Zipper's daughters said their mother and father owned an ocelot when they lived in Venezuela and daughter Lorie said, that as children, "We had so many animals it was like a zoo."
Guinea pigs, gerbils, rabbits, lizards, dogs, horses, exotic songbirds. There even was a howler monkey.
"One year," Lorie said, "a black crow befriended my father and rode his shoulder as my father did yardwork on the weekends."
Following the death of Bernice in 2001, Zipper met a woman named Margaret Davison and his daughters said the two became loyal companions. Though they never married, Zipper sold the home in Lattingtown and he and Margaret moved into the Carlisle, a senior condo complex in Lantana, outside of Palm Beach, and lived there until she died, at which point Milton moved to the Carlisle in Naples.
Lorie Hedtrich said that in Naples her dad had a home health aide named Aurelio Harbor, who, it turned out, was from Panama.
"He told me my father had told him things about Panama that he never knew," she said. "They spoke for many hours about the politics and historic events in Panama. After my father's death, while my sister Carol and I were in Florida to clear up unfinished business, Aurelio stopped by to visit. He informed us that he was starting to make plans to return to Panama" — because, Lorie Hedtrich said, Harbor made it clear her dad had sparked some burning flame in him with all his stories.
"He told me he had never met a man like Milton Zipper," she said.
Zipper is survived by Hentrich and her husband Arthur, Towne and her husband Richard of Miller Place and Towne's daughter Sherilyn. Predeceasing Zipper were his wife Bernice, who died in February 2001, and daughter Devie Kelsey, the twin of Hentrich, in 2007.
A memorial is scheduled for 11 a.m. Aug. 25 at the Dodge-Thomas Funeral Home, 25 Franklin Ave. in Glen Cove, with interment to follow at the Locust Valley Cemetery.