Don't ask them -- and you just may receive

March 29, 1992|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Staff Writer

An article about the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation in Sunday's editions of The Sun said that in life Harry Weinberg was "decried as a slumlord" whose wealth was built at the expense of the poor. In fact, Mr. Weinberg owned relative ly little residential real estate. His holdings were mostly in commercial real estate, much of it in downtown Baltimore and in deteriorated condition.

The sun regrets the errors.

The angels of mercy are again on the move today, traveling across town in a boxy old Lincoln Continental on their way to East Baltimore and the gleaming new headquarters of Meals-on-Wheels of Central Maryland.

When they arrive, the driver's door opens and a tall, ruddy-faced, sixtyish man sidles to the front of the building where he gazes up at the sign. The other two men, older and less spry, soon shuffle up alongside him, peering through the bottle-thick lenses of their eyeglasses, looking like elderly museumgoers appraising a work art. They nod to each other. The sign, they agree, has come out just fine.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The big, rust-colored letters read, "The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Central Service Facility."

Golf courses in Florida are crowded with men who fit the exact profile of this trio: well-off, retired businessmen. But these men are working as hard as ever. Two years ago, they abruptly joinedthe world's most important figures in philanthropy, sitting atop a foundation with $640 million in assets, enough to make it the 22nd-largest charitable trust in the country and by far the biggest in Baltimore.

Almost certainly none of the giant foundations could match this one for quirkiness. The Weinberg foundation has only one staff member. It does not solicit applications, publicize criteria for grants or even publish a telephone number. Instead, grants often originate in casual contacts or news reports or other unplanned ways that suddenly excite the trustees' interest and sometimes prompt them to jet across the country or even around the world.

Their task is an enviable one: to spend upward of $31 million a year on good works, and to make sure that variations of that same sign go up on dozens upon dozens of projects across the United States and Israel.

All of this charity will be accomplished on behalf of the late Harry Weinberg, an irascible real estate speculator who in life suffered a reputation for acquiring his staggering wealth at the expense of the poor, the very people he charged these men with assisting after his death.

The three men are Bernard Siegel, 62, whose accounting firm worked for Harry Weinberg for nearly 30 years before his death in 1990, and the late entrepreneur's younger brothers, 80-year old William and 74-year-old Nathan, both of whom also worked closely with him. The three are joined on the Weinberg foundation's board by two non-Baltimoreans, Alvin Awaya, who managed Harry Weinberg's real estate empire in Hawaii and Robert T. Kelly Sr. of Scranton, Pa., who also worked as an auditor for Mr. Weinberg.

Each man is forever on the look-out for good works, often stumbling upon them in unexpected ways.

For example, more than a year ago, Mr. Siegel was driving to work from his Randallstown home when he heard a radio report about a new Red Cross project to trace the victims of the Nazi Holocaust.

The trustees visited the project's headquarters in Baltimore. They determined the project would be more effective if it were automated. Without even being asked, they decided to contribute $37,000 for the purchase of computers.

Still, they were not satisfied. The project used volunteers -- some of whom were survivors of the Holocaust themselves -- who sat in a cramped, windowless office translating materials into German.

"Nathan Weinberg felt there should be space with light," said Steve Mandell, the project's director. "He felt it was it was inappropriate for Holocaust survivors not to work in natural light." Again, without waiting to be asked, the trustees anted up another $22,000 for a renovation that would put the volunteers in an office with plenty of windows.

"It was extraordinary, magical," said Mr. Mandell.

The capriciousness of the foundation has been frustrating for some.

"They do not operate in the normal way at all," said Albert Payne, who tried unsuccessfully to get money for his N. M. Carroll Manor, a Baltimore residence for senior citizens. Mr. Payne, the assistant director, said he repeatedly wrote to the foundation without any response.

"Other places let you know what they're interested in, they have experts review your proposal, and then they get back to you," Mr. Payne said. "These people we couldn't figure out."

Mr. Payne's remarks were more impolitic than he realized. According to the foundation's charter, written by Harry Weinberg, any charitable organization that "at any time challenges, directly or indirectly," the decisions of the trustees, "shall forever be barred from receiving any distributions" from the foundation.

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