Weinberg's simple service matches austere life

November 08, 1990|By David Simon

In a graveside service that seemed to symbolize the strange solitude of Baltimore's richest man and largest benefactor, Harry Weinberg was laid to rest yesterday morning in a small Jewish cemetery on an East Baltimore hilltop.

As with everything else in the 82-year-old financier's life, Mr. Weinberg's departure from this vale was simple and unpretentious, and as thoroughly planned as one of his business deals.

Having battled bone cancer for eight years, Mr. Weinberg was aware of his declining condition. Earlier this year, when leaving Baltimore for his Honolulu home, he told friends here that he would not return to this city alive.

It was at that time that he expressed his desire for a simple service and began making preparations. The plain casket and minimal funeral arrangements had been paid for in advance. The stone monument had already been cut to order, with only the date of death to be added. The gravesite had been purchased from the Hebrew Friendship Cemetery on East Baltimore Street many years ago.

Only in the size of his cemetery plot did Mr. Weinberg display the qualities that propelled him from the streets of Southwest Baltimore to a fortune estimated at $1 billion or more -- a fortune that is now deposited in a trust for the poor.

A man who valued real estate above all else -- "God isn't making any more of it," he liked to tell people -- Mr. Weinberg purchased 72 plots from the cemetery, an expanse of land sufficient to guarantee a certain and lasting degree of privacy for himself and his wife, who preceded him in death a year ago.

But beyond that single extravagance, Mr. Weinberg hewed to the same simplicity that allowed him to amass incredible wealth while driving battered cars, wearing discount clothes and engineering business deals from drab, unadorned offices in which he always seemed to answer his own phone.

His final resting place was in keeping with all of that.

Founded early in the century, the small cemetery that was once on the outskirts of town is now surrounded by the ordinary sights of East Baltimore. Behind the Weinberg plot is the Klausmeyer Tire Co. on Conkling Street; in front of it, a small cemetery chapel and the Lord Baltimore Laundry. To the south, the Baltimore Street traffic; to the north, the rusting Armco plant, visible in the distance.

No rabbi presided at the service, which was attended by about 120 friends and relatives and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. Instead, one of Mr. Weinberg's local lawyers, Shale D. Stiller, led mourners in Hebrew and English recitations of the 23rd Psalm and offered the briefest of eulogies.

Scarcely a mention was made of Mr. Weinberg's extraordinary act of charity -- tzedakah in Hebrew -- in which at least $900 million in assets were transferred to the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation for the aid of the poor in this city and elsewhere.

"He came to this country at the age of 4," Mr. Stiller told the gathering. "And when he was a young boy, he and his brothers actually had to use the public baths -- 30 cents for soap and towels -- in their neighborhood. . . . Harry never forgot where he came from."

Mr. Stiller said that Mr. Weinberg wished to be remembered by two specific acts of charity, which he then recounted for the mourners. On his last trip to Israel in 1989, Mr. Weinberg paid for air conditioning in all of the Jewish state's homes for the elderly. Likewise, a visit to the Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital convinced him that residents there needed premium ice cream on a regular basis. He set up a perpetual fund for that purpose.

The lawyer ended the nine-minute service by leading mourners in the traditional memorial prayer, El Maleh Rachamim -- in which mourners pray that memories of the departed "may inspire me always to noble and consecrated living" -- followed by the Mourner's Kaddish.

The gathering ended with each of Mr. Weinberg's three brothers and his son covering the lowered casket with a small spadeful of dirt. Mr. Weinberg's 80-year-old sister died Tuesday at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and her services were scheduled for tomorrow.

After the services, the family retired to Mr. Weinberg's Baltimore apartment for a private shiva.

"It was all very simple," said Darrell Friedman, a Weinberg friend and president of the Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, formerly the Associated Jewish Charities. "It was exactly as Harry wanted it."

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