The 2020 NYSSCPA Awards: Distinguished Service Award Winner Sidney Kess Recognized for Phenomenal Contributions to the Society

By:
Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Jun 29, 2020
Sid Kess

Sidney Kess, the 2020 winner of the Society’s Distinguished Service Award, is a legend. This is no exaggeration or hyperbole but, rather, a simple recitation of fact: One can be confident in saying that the number of CPAs who know his name and his work far outnumber those who do not. This is because he has spent more than half a century making his mark on the profession through education and instruction.

Kess is the author of literally dozens of books and even more articles. He has personally taught over a million practitioners in CPE sessions, and has likely reached even more than that through the myriad audio courses, video presentations and conferences he’s created. Through it all, even at 94 years old, he also maintains positions as both senior consultant for Citrin Cooperman, one of the nation’s largest accounting firms, and as of counsel for Kostelanetz & Fink, LLP, a leading tax law controversy firm. (He is both a CPA and an attorney). And before any of this, as a young man, he fought for his country in World War II in both France and Germany.

While most people his age might be content to relax on a sandy beach all day, Kess admits that he is a little different.

“Creating ideas and trying to implement them is my way of relaxing,” he said with a laugh.

And so, for example, it is not surprising that, when still in rehab for a broken femur, Kess organized this year’s Baruch College Conference on Estate, Financial and Retirement Planning, as he has done every year for decades. Putting together everything from the rehabilitation hospital, he said that when the day of the event finally came, the staff wheeled him into a boardroom, where he hosted the conference virtually.

But then, that’s what Kess has been doing for decades. And it all began with the State Society.

Kess’ involvement with the NYSSCPA goes all the way back to the 1950s, when he wrote a five-page typed letter to then-president Jacob S. Seidman, who led the Society from 1954 to 1955. Kess, a young CPA at the time, said the Society needed to be more responsive to newly minted professionals just entering the field. In response, he wound up organizing the Association of CPA Candidates, an early precursor of today’s NextGen initiative.

Once he got to know more people at the Society, he was eventually asked to speak at the annual summer institute it used to run at Briarcliff College. Every year, he’d hold forth on his specialty, tax research. By 1964, Kess had taken the content of these talks and developed them into a formal professional education course for the AICPA, the first of many he would come to create over the decades.

He was initially asked to develop a course on individual income tax return preparation for the NYSSCPA. So many people attended, that the AICPA recruited Kess to teach it nationwide. He agreed, but insisted on waiving his fee for NYSSCPA members, in recognition of the fact that the Society had given him his first opportunity to get involved with continuing education.

In  2010, the AICPA established the Sidney Kess Award for Excellence in Continuing Education in his honor. In 2012, he received the AICPA’s Gold Medal and, in 2016, received the AICPA’s Personal Financial Planning Distinguished Service Award. But Kess’ first loyalty remains with the NYSSCPA, and his appreciation has continued even decades after he joined.

“I’m grateful for all the State Society has done in the course of my life. Ever since I was a young man, I was always full of ideas, but even at this stage of my life, I’m able to offer suggestions which can be of help to the profession; the State Society and its CPA Journal have been some of the vehicles through which I am able to do this,” he said.

Since that first course, countless professionals have benefited from his knowledge and expertise over the years, and Kess, in turn, has benefited from their gratitude and appreciation, as today he counts many of his former students among his most treasured friends.

“People all over America have become not only my students, but lifelong friends. Each week, I receive calls from students who attended my workshops and courses all around America. I can tell you, some of them are my best friends today,” he said.

But his assistance was not limited to students. Kess, throughout his entire career, has taken pains to  make himself available to other professionals for guidance. To this day, colleagues regularly call him for advice on this or that tax matter, and in the rare event that he doesn’t know how to help them, his extensive contacts in the IRS allow him to connect with someone who can.

It is this spirit of helpfulness and professional camaraderie that has made a major impression on those who know him. Former NYSSCPA board member Tracey J. Niemotko, who nominated Kess for the award, called him “a sage and an icon” who is “a true Renaissance man who has selflessly devoted himself to the service of others.”

Elliot L. Hendler, a current NYSSCPA board member, said that Kess was “one of the outstanding accountants of this century and the last half of the 20th century.” While the two didn’t meet until 2009, Hendler said that “there was never a time in my professional career, which has been going on for 63 years, when I didn’t know who Sid Kess was and is.” But in getting to know him as a man versus as “an icon and a legend,” as he put it, Hendler was further impressed by his groundedness and kindness.

“He is a really nice person. A true mensch. Sid Kess has been, and remains, an example and inspiration to generations of accountants. He continued to inspire me to be an active and contributing member of the Society and the profession for as long as I can,” he said.

Edward Mendlowitz, meanwhile, first encountered Kess as a young staff accountant in the 1960s while attending one of his early tax workshops. Impressed with Kess’ skill in making the complicated understandable, “I became a fan then and there.” The two would later meet more formally in the ’70s, after Mendlowitz sat on a tax panel at a conference that Kess had organized. They have been colleagues and friends ever since. He praised Kess’ openness, his work ethic, his devotion to the profession and his impressive intellect.

Mendlowitz said that he is especially gratified to have been a co-editor of The CPA Journal with Kess for the last five years. Beyond the countless technical articles they’ve individually authored, the pair has also written over 25 columns together, which has meant speaking with Kess about two or three times a week.

“What a thrill! His knowledge, memory and network is so vast, it sometimes boggles my mind,” Mendlowitz said. “Our body of writing is a compendium of the entire range of financial planning services that CPAs can perform and, combined, is a toolkit of how to do it.”

Both Mendlowitz and Niemotko also mentioned the penchant Kess has for mentoring other professionals, which by now likely number in the thousands. Even today—and even at his age—Kess remains a forceful advocate for young professionals just entering the field. While he understands that young CPAs may feel intimidated by his reputation, he has stressed over and over that what he has done isn’t out of reach for others to accomplish, too, provided they can spot opportunities when they appear.

“Whenever there’s new legislation, everyone is on the same starting line. And a young person who takes the time to dig into the new developments has the opportunity to master this and become a leader in the field,” he said, adding that young people are already becoming experts in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and the CARES Act. “The point I’m raising is [that] when something new and complicated is enacted, young people have the opportunity to study and master the new provisions, because they know as much as anyone who has been in the game a lifetime.”

Kess acknowledged that, in the course of his career, he has received all kinds of awards from all kinds of organizations, but still felt particularly honored that the NYSSCPA was recognizing him for his achievements.

“The Society gave me the opportunity to achieve all of my success,” he said. “I owe it all to you, the State Society.”

This award salutes CPA members who have distinguished  themselves as Society leaders through model service within the NYSSCPA and the profession. The award celebrates those who have demonstrated outstanding dedication to and have made a remarkable impact upon the Society and the profession through endeavors such as inspirational service in leadership positions in the NYSSCPA, the development of future leaders of the Society and the profession, educational or publication efforts, public service and other activities.

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