Father and daughter Arthur Mahon ’58 and Nancy Mahon ’89 compare notes on their experiences as Root Tilden Scholars

Arthur and Nancy Mahon

Arthur Mahon ’58 and Nancy Mahon ’89 are a rare father-daughter pair. Not only are they both NYU Law graduates, but both are alumni of what is now the Law School’s Root-Tilden-Kern (RTK) program.

Arthur Mahon, an estates and trust lawyer who currently serves as a trustee of the New York and Presbyterian Hospital, attended the Law School at a very different time in its history. NYU Law then primarily served commuter students, and it was only the Root Tilden scholars who lived at the school and came from around the country. (In 1998, Jerome Kern ’60 also endowed the program, which had originally been named in honor of Elihu Root, class of 1867, and Samuel J. Tilden, class of 1841.) By the time Nancy Mahon, now senior vice president of global corporate citizenship and sustainability at Estée Lauder and former global executive director of the MAC AIDS Fund, became an Root Tilden Scholar, NYU Law had evolved into the top-tier school it is today and public service had become the backbone of the Root Tilden program. 

Speaking with both Mahons, we asked them to compare their experiences as NYU Law students and Root-Tilden scholars from two different eras.

What originally drew you to choose NYU Law?

Arthur: I had a scholarship to go to Yale Law School which I turned down to take the Root-Tilden scholarship because I thought it was so special—that was one major reason. The second reason was that I was trying to win the hand of the woman I eventually married. We were married for 53 years until she passed away. She lived out in Jackson Heights, so Greenwich Village was closer than New Haven, and my competitor was a cadet at West Point, so I wanted the geographical advantage.

Nancy: I have wonderful memories from when I was in grade school of my dad teaching night school at NYU Law. I just remember how much he loved the Law School and how deeply grateful he felt that he was able to go to the school. That was my earliest memory of NYU Law: That it was a great place and he loved it. The school not only financially supported him, but also really created a community for him of all the Root-Tilden folks from his year. After I went to college and decided I wanted to go to law school, I fell in love with NYU Law in a different way. It had such incredible values, and there was a community around social justice.

Arthur, what was your reaction when your daughter decided to follow in your footsteps at NYU Law as a Root-Tilden scholar?

Arthur: Oh, I was thrilled. Absolutely thrilled, because I knew how valuable the program was and I knew what a wonderful education she’d get. I was particularly proud because when I was in the program it was strictly male. It was a different time in a different era—there were 375 students in my year and I think we had three women. Now, of course, more than 50 percent are women. So the world has changed, and I was so glad that Nancy got some of the benefit of that change.                                                                                      

When Nancy was a law student, did the two of you compare notes about your experiences?

Arthur: I think gave her my notes and she threw them out…

Nancy: My father was an amazing, amazing student, and actually throughout my legal career I’ve consulted him. During my first summer clerkship, I thought I had no idea what I was doing. I called my father and told him that, and he said, ‘Nobody does, just go in there and do the best you can.”

How did your experience in the Root Tilden program affect your career?

Nancy: The Root-Tilden community exposed me to a huge range of public interest work that I never would have on my own thought about. The program gave us resources to explore things we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. My 1L summer I ended up working at the Consumer’s Union in San Francisco. The second year I worked with Linda Fairstein [former head of the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office] on the “Preppie Murder” trial [of Robert Chambers for the 1986 killing of 18-year old Jennifer Levin in Central Park].  

When my father was in the program, it was entirely merit-based. There wasn’t a public interest piece to it. He is a trusts and estates lawyer—although from advising on trusts and wills, he became involved with nonprofit organizations.

Arthur: After law school, I went on to the Air Force as a judge advocate general (JAG) for a couple of years. I was supposed to be a pilot, but I deferred to go to law school, and in my second year at NYU Law, my eyes went so I could no longer pass the eye test. So I went into JAG from 1958 to 1960, and then went down to Wall Street and never left it until 2007. When I went to NYU, only one firm came to campus to interview us. But having been a Root-Tilden scholar, that really opened doors on Wall Street.

By the time Nancy came along, NYU Law was a very different place, and the program had changed too. Nancy wanted to combine law and charitable work—her mother worked for United Way and the Archdiocese in New York, and her father practiced law—so I think she tried to combine both in what she did.

What advice would you have for RTK scholars today?

Nancy: Challenge yourself academically and get as many skills as you can, especially managerial and supervisory skills. We are increasingly in a global world, and it’s important to make a point of speaking to people who have training in other disciplines, other life experiences, come from different cultures and countries. The world needs highly trained people who don’t just play in one narrow lane but who think more broadly.

Arthur: The most important part of the experience is the relationships. I formed lifelong relationships with the people in the program. I see my classmates who were Root-Tildens at least once a year now and have for the last 25 years.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Posted May 8, 2018