Book reintroduces local benefactors Memorial: The Aaron and Lillie Straus Foundation, in its 70th year, is reacquainting those who benefit from its funds with the couple who made it all possible.

February 03, 1997|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Aaron Straus, a Baltimore businessman and philanthropist, was arguing one day with a man who came into his office asking for a little money for the Boy Scouts or some other cause.

A half century later, his friend Sidney Chernak recalls the moment: "Uncle Airy was giving the man a tough time, but it was a good-natured debate. Aaron looked at me and asked, 'Is there a car parked outside? What's the license plate number?' "

Chernak still remembers -- 1724.

"Aaron took out his checkbook and wrote the man a check for $1,724. The man thanked him over and over. Airy, the teaser. He liked a little fun with his philanthropy."

Straus, called uncle by those who knew and admired him, died in 1958 at 92. His wife, Lillie Meyer Straus, died in 1953 at 82. The couple is unknown to almost two generations since, but is being reintroduced in a small, handsome book of old pictures and memories.

Because memorials are for the living as well as the dead, it was decided that now was the time for the book. Many of the Strauses' friends and beneficiaries who could tell stories and savor the memories are aging.

The volume marked the 70th anniversary of one of the oldest, least known and most influential foundations in Maryland, named for the wealthy couple who in 1926 put up money that, through investments, has grown to almost $60 million.

The Aaron and Lillie Straus Foundation has given millions to family and children's causes in Maryland. Its original goal has adjusted with changing times but remains intact.

Its grant-making portfolio concentrates on these institutions, though others also benefit: The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore; Johns Hopkins Institutions; Maryland Committee for Children; Kennedy Krieger Institute; Advocates for Children and Youth; Friends of the Family; and the Central Scholarship Bureau.

Sorting out scores of competing causes is the responsibility of Jan Rivitz, the foundation's executive director. Puzzling over them one day, she was overheard saying, "Now, what would Lillie have done?"

It's a question others have asked themselves. "Lillie sounds like an angel," said Joan Abelson, the free-lance author of the 60-page memorial book. The foundation has been circulating about 2,000 copies in Baltimore for several weeks.

Straus was the businessman-philanthropist, who began his career working at his father's furniture store at Howard and Fayette streets. His father was also president of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation; the son, as a member and a benefactor, would follow in support.

The son expanded the business and ultimately made millions in furniture, clothing and jewelry stores owned by the Reliable Stores Corp. from New England to New Mexico.

The Strauses had no children. Her great-nephew, Richard Meyer Barnett, directs Reliable, which is based in Columbia and operates east of the Mississippi. Reliable has 38 furniture stores under such names as the Hub and 38 jewelry stores under such names as S&N Katz and Castleberg's.

Barnett, also the foundation president, recently gave a speech to a local social agency. "I could see a kind of blank look on their faces as I talked about this wonderful couple.

"They didn't understand who the Strauses were," said a disappointed Barnett.

The agency was honoring the Strauses' most famous legacy -- Camp Louise, for 430 girls, and Camp Airy, for 400 boys, which both operate in the Catoctin Mountains. Aaron named Camp Louise for his sister.

Sheldon Cohen, the Internal Revenue Service director under President Lyndon Johnson, is one of many famous alumni of the camps for Jewish children. He was a camper and counselor from 1937 to 1955, proposed to his wife, Faye, there, and saw their four children become campers.

The Washington tax lawyer said Ida Sharogrodsky, the camps' director for 50 years, was "the spark" that ignited the couple's desire to help children. "The Strauses were a generation ahead of their time in their ideas of equality and giving kids a break," Cohen said.

Friends recall a German Jewish gentleman from Baltimore and a Jewish lady from St. Louis. They met when he was on a business trip to St. Louis and married June 9, 1889.

Theirs was a love story of 65 years, 64 of them married, until Mrs. Straus died.

They didn't own a home but lived instead in an apartment at the Belvedere Hotel and wore clothing off the rack or used by someone else first. They liked to travel worldwide and collected toy banks, carved ivory, Japanese coins, glass paperweights and some antiques.

They eschewed publicity so assiduously that tallying their gifts and positive effects on thousands of lives would be impossible, friends said. But Mrs. Straus, through her Central Scholarship Bureau, nudged 750 people toward careers before she died, and the bureau has helped many more since.

Chernak, for 41 years a public school teacher, principal and administrator in Baltimore, recalls taking charge at an elementary school where he found a mysterious room upstairs.

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