Financier Weinberg dies, leaves $1 billion to poor Son of immigrant made his fortune with real estate

November 05, 1990|By Albert Sehlstedt Jr., David Simon and Lynda Robinson Jonathan Bor and Robert A. Erlandson of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

Harry Weinberg, Baltimore's lone billionaire, whose eccentricities were dwarfed only by his fortune, died yesterday at Queen's Hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii, after an eight-year battle with bone cancer. He was 82.

Mr. Weinberg, who accumulated a fortune in real estate, municipal transit companies and other ventures during the last half-century, was a local example of the familiar American success story -- the son of immigrant parents, he quit school at 12, worked in his father's auto shop, sold newspapers on the side and eventually parlayed a series of remarkably successful business deals into enormous wealth.

In the end, he remained true to his roots by leaving virtually all of his money to a Baltimore-based foundation for the poor that bears his name and that of his late wife.

By rough estimate, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation will be among the nation's 12 largest -- worth at least $900 million and obligated to spend as much as $45 million a year to serve the poor.

"He was someone who brought himself up from nothing," said his younger brother, William Weinberg, who is to serve as a foundation trustee. "And I believe that if all the money in the world were suddenly taken away and everyone had to start over again, he'd still wind up with [his] money."

By all accounts, Harry Weinberg was a man with little interest in anything but business. Although he accumulated enormous wealth, he never bothered with the trappings. His offices were drab, his car was 10 or 15 years old, his clothes came off the rack, and his abhorrence of publicity was almost legend.

"I don't think he ever joined a country club," said his son, Morton Weinberg, who lives just outside Los Angeles. "He didn't play golf. He didn't play tennis. His business was his life. He didn't waste his time doing other things."

Harry Weinberg's mind was a whir of activity that worked around the clock in pursuit of profit. But he spoke in his own strange vocabulary -- a mishmash of words that made sense to people who knew him well but not to anyone else.

"It wasn't pidgin, it wasn't Yiddish, it had no accent," said Lawrence I. Weisman, an attorney who represented Mr. Weinberg in business dealings for 40 years and served with him on corporate boards. "You'd have to spend a substantial amount of time before you understood you were dealing with a genius. He just had this difficulty in expressing himself in ordinary English."

Nonetheless, Mr. Weinberg -- who was listed in the phone book and answered his own phone -- had no trouble communicating with reporters. If they called, he'd bark a gruff "no comment" and hang up.

Criticized as a callous landlord who neglected his properties on Howard Street and in other Baltimore neighborhoods, Mr. Weinberg didn't seem destined to end life with a grand act of public service. It wasn't until he was diagnosed as having cancer about eight years ago that he announced that he would give his money away after he'd finished making it.

He'd grown up in Baltimore, where the city's great philanthropists were revered, his son said. Like Johns Hopkins and George Peabody, he wanted to give something back to the community.

Mr. Weinberg wasn't particularly religious, but he strongly supported Jewish causes and charities. He also never forgot those who helped him.

As children, Mr. Weinberg and his siblings were treated free at St. Agnes Hospital. Years later, William Weinberg saw a large check to the hospital on his brother's desk and asked about it.

"Goddammit," Harry Weinberg told him. "You of all people ought to know what that's for."

Mr. Weinberg also developed a special concern for the elderly. During trips to Atlantic City, he avoided the casinos, instead spending time talking to old people on the Boardwalk, asking how they were making ends meet.

On his final 1989 pilgrimage to Israel -- a nation whose birth he witnessed firsthand in 1948 -- he asked to visit several of Tel Aviv's nursing homes.

It was a humid summer day, and Mr. Weinberg was surprised that the nursing homes were not air-conditioned. So he wrote a check for $1 million to pay for air-conditioning for every nursing home in Israel.

In Baltimore, he spent $20,000 to ensure that residents of the Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital receive premium ice cream twice every month.

He was born Aug. 15, 1908, in Galicia, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and lived there with his parents, two brothers and a sister until he was 4 years old, according to published accounts.

His father immigrated to the United States in 1912, first stopping in New York, then coming to Baltimore before sending for his family to join him. The family settled into a small house in Southwest Baltimore near Wilkens Avenue.

The elder Mr. Weinberg opened an automobile body and fender shop near Camden Station, a business in which all five of the Weinberg children eventually labored and learned the rudiments business, according to Mr. Weinberg's brother, William Weinberg.

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