Larry Austin, of Dix Hills, founder and chairman of Austin Travel, one of Long Island’s largest privately held companies, died June 11. He was 87.
Austin was a prolific volunteer for numerous Long Island business groups, charitable organizations and travel industry associations. One of his most visible roles was as chairman of the Long Island Philharmonic.
He died Monday, with his family at his side. He had battled numerous illnesses in recent years, but still managed to keep up many of his philanthropic efforts and write a book, “…And away we went!” which chronicled his experiences as a travel agency owner.
Austin was born Dec. 17, 1930 in Brooklyn to Sol and Ada Ausfresser. The family changed names to Austin in 1948.
Both sets of his grandparents had immigrated from Eastern Europe or Russia in the first decade of the 20th century.
Born during the Great Depression, Austin worked for as long as he could remember. His father, Sol, worked for the U.S. Post Office and brought home buckle parts which the family assembled to bring in extra money. When he was 9, he delivered clothes for a local cleaner. He then graduated to delivering the Brooklyn Eagle. Austin also worked as a soda jerk for Whelan’s Drug Stores while attending Brooklyn Technical High School and would serve Ed Sullivan his strawberry malted every Sunday at 4 p.m.
Austin’s big break came when he won the Gold Medal from the Advertising Club of NY in 1951. His prize was an all-expense trip to attend the World Advertising Convention in London. Besides taking classes at the Advertising Club, he worked for Kieswetter, Wetterau, Hagedorn, Baker and Smith as a copy boy during the day and attended City College (now Baruch) at night. Upon his return home, Jules Murel, his advertising professor asked him to take over his advertising agency so he could be a VP for a major shoe company. At the age of 21, with barely a semester of college under his belt, he was in running an ad agency.
In 1955, Austin was checking out locations for the agency to open on Long Island. He found the right spot in Hicksville, but the landlord suggested he go into the travel business because at the time there were only three travel agencies on Long Island. Murel and Austin jumped at the chance and Travel Services Mart of Hicksville was born, eventually turning into Austin Travel.
Austin Travel would grow to $125 million in sales and was ranked the 39th largest travel agency in the country.
Austin became a master at networking, attending every local business group meeting he could find. He was a board member for the Long Island Association, and chaired its transportation and nominating committees. Over the years he was a director or chairman of numerous groups: Long Island Better Business Bureau; Long Island Mid-Suffolk Business Association; Nassau Convention and Visitors Bureau; Long Island Convention and Visitor’s bureau; Sky Island Club; UJA of Long Island and many more.
He was a founder of many industry groups, as well, such as Long Island Travel Agents Association (LITAA), Queens-Nassau-Suffolk (QNS) travel agents, GIANTs (an industry cooperative buying group), Hickory Travel Group and Travel Management Alliance.
One of Austin’s close collaborators on Long Island was Harry Chapin. In a quote from Circle! from fall 2005, Austin recalled how Harry Chapin approached him at a Performing Arts Foundation performance in ’78 or ’79. “Harry saw me and backed me up against the wall and nominated me to be president (of PAF). I didn’t have a chance to speak.”
It began a years-long friendship and collaboration.
Austin was one of the last people to see Chapin alive, playing a round of golf before the singer’s fatal car accident in 1981.
Austin’s experience with Chapin led him to the Long Island Philharmonic, another of Chapin’s favorite projects, and to become a vocal supporter for arts and music on Long Island.
Over many years, he was the recipient of numerous awards. These include: Distinguished Leadership Award from Long Island Business News in 1976 and 1997; Harry Chapin Humanitarian Award from LIA in 1994 and a Lifetime Achievement Award from LIA in 2011; Man of the Year for Cerebral Palsy Association in 1993; Spirit of Long Island Entrepreneur Award from Nassau Country in 1998; UJA Long Island Businessmen Award; and the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2001.
Throughout its lifespan, Austin Travel was one of the top 50 travel agencies in the country and one of the top 50 privately held businesses on Long Island.
On top of his business, trade organizations, and business groups his major passions were his grandchildren and golf. One of his greatest moments was getting a hole-in-one on his home golf course, Cold Spring Country Club. He was happiest when playing golf with his grandchildren and ran an annual golf tournament just for them. Amazingly, nobody ever won, it was always a tie.
Austin is survived by wife of 64 years Eileen; sons Jeffrey, Jamie and Stewart and their wives, Ellie, Robbie and Helen, respectively; 10 grandchildren; and younger sister, Betty, who lives in Florida with her husband, Rich.
Funeral services are today, 11 a.m. at Gutterman’s Funeral Home in Woodbury. The family will be sitting shiva at 17 Tree Hollow Lane, Dix Hills from this afternoon to Tuesday evening.
Memorial contributions can be made in his name to Long Island Community Chest, or UJA of Long Island.