Harry Feinberg, 85, built Duron Paints into nationwide chain of 220 stores

February 29, 1996|By Lisa Respers and Fred Rasmussen | Lisa Respers and Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Harry Feinberg, who got into the paint business in Baltimore by offering to work without pay and built a nationwide chain with 220 stores, died in his sleep Tuesday at his winter home in Fort Myers, Fla. He was 85.

Mr. Feinberg was the founder and chairman of Duron Paints and Wallcoverings -- a business he crafted from a half-interest in a small Washington paint manufacturing firm. It now employs 1,400 people in 13 states and the District of Columbia, and has sales of more than $210 million a year.

An avid concert-goer and patron of the arts, Mr. Feinberg was a founder in 1963 and emeritus board member of Center Stage, an active supporter of the Eastern Shore Chamber Music Festival, and a sponsor of the Shriver Hall Concert Series at the Johns Hopkins University.

Peter W. Culman, Center Stage's executive director, said, "He has been a trustee the entire 30 years I've been here, and was a surrogate father to me and the theater."

Mr. Culman recalled a difficult period when staffers and trustees met weekly in the basement of the Equitable Bank building, trying to resolve a serious cash-flow problem.

"Weekly he'd show up with a check he had arm-twisted out of someone, and when that ended he used his own arm to write one," Mr. Culman said.

"His life was an Horatio Alger story and it truly reflected the American dream," Mr. Culman said.

Mr. Feinberg was born and raised in Northwest Baltimore, the son of Russian immigrants who owned and operated a Greenmount Avenue tailor shop. After graduating from City College in 1926, he took clerical positions to help support his family, which included five siblings. In the evening, he attended chemistry, physics and mathematics classes at Johns Hopkins.

While working for a hat company in 1930, Mr. Feinberg made himself invaluable by becoming adept at adding figures. But he quit after his manager ordered everyone to work without pay on Easter, and then refused to allow Mr. Feinberg 25 cents for dinner.

"He had gotten so good at adding long lists of figures that a few days later the boss was asking him to come back," said his son, Robert S. Feinberg. "He didn't go back, and used it as an excuse to strike out and look for a job doing chemistry."

.` What followed was a year of un

employment for Mr. Feinberg and tough times for his family. The Associated Jewish Charities of Baltimore helped the family, and years later Mr. Feinberg would contribute generously to the organization he credited with helping them survive the Depression.

In 1931, Mr. Feinberg contacted the H. B. Davis company, then Baltimore's largest paint manufacturer, and volunteered to work without pay until he had proven himself. Three days later -- thanks to the firing of an employee for striking a co-worker -- Mr. Feinberg was offered the open job as assistant to the lab supervisor.

In 1948, Mr. Feinberg left H. B. Davis, where he had become technical director, to buy a half-interest in the Norman Paint Co. He changed the name to Duron Paints and shifted marketing strategy to focus on professional painting contracts.

By 1974, Duron paint sales had risen from $150,000 in its first year to $18 million, and the company was operating 45 stores in the Mid-Atlantic region with 450 employees. He later bought out his partner, and, in 1976, brought his son into the firm.

"His real love and baby was Duron," said the son, now president of the Beltsville-based business. "He enjoyed making Duron better."

Mr. Feinberg had been an officer and member of numerous trade organizations, won several industry awards and was honored by President Jimmy Carter as a distinguished citizen -- recognized for his technical advice and donation of paint to restore the sandstone facade of the White House.

In his leisure, Mr. Feinberg, who was described by his son as a "quiet man," liked to "noodle the

piano for pleasure."

His first wife, the former Jeanne Gruber, whom he married in 1934, shared his love of music and from 1968 to 1983 was executive director of the Shriver series. It recently celebrated 30 years of performances.

The couple lived in Mount Washington before moving in 1986 to The Willows on the Miles River, a home they shared until Mrs. Feinberg's death in 1992. He remarried two years ago.

In addition to his son who lives in Bethesda, Mr. Feinberg is survived by his wife, the former Marine Robinson; two daughters, Trudi Cohen of Charlotte, Vt., and Charlotte Brody of Chevy Chase; and six grandchildren.

The family suggested memorial donations to Center Stage, at 700 N. Calvert St., where a memorial service is being planned for TTC 11 a.m. March 17 in its Head Theater.

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