Young woman's death inspired Kimmel's philanthropic journey

After friend's daughter died of cancer at 25, billionaire turned donor

November 15, 2001|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

A few months after his best friend's daughter died of cancer in Baltimore, Sidney Kimmel asked after the doctor-researchers who had tried to save her.

"I'd like to meet those guys," he told his friend Dick Butera.

It was the start of an amazing philanthropic journey for the fashion industry billionaire, who started giving millions to cancer research. Now, about eight years later, he is one of the top cancer philanthropists, giving millions of dollars to the cause, including his biggest sum yesterday, as the largest gift ever received by Johns Hopkins.

Kimmel has approached his philanthropy with the same passion, energy and hands-on approach he brought to his career. The son of a Philadelphia cab driver, he worked his way up in the fashion industry and turned Jones Apparel Group Inc. into an empire. Along the way, Kimmel has produced movies and contributed to the arts and other charities. He is also a partner in world-renowned restaurants and the Miami Heat basketball team.

But Kimmel's down-to-earth, gracious style belies how far he has come, and how much money he has. "He's a street guy. He grew up in West and South Philly, and he has a long memory about where he came from," said Matthew Kamens, a close friend and adviser who sits on Jones Apparel's board.

At 73, the debonair Kimmel - who has no children and married for the first time a few years ago - still works long hours running his company, while paying close attention to his other job: giving away the millions he has accumulated.

"Here's a man who has everything he wants in life, but he knows he can't spend it. He wants to have an impact," said Dr. Gary Cohen, director of the cancer center at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. Cohen cared for Annie Butera, the daughter of Kimmel's friend.

She was 25, just starting out - working, living in a rowhouse about 10 blocks from Johns Hopkins Hospital and in love with a boyfriend. Dick Butera said she battled an aggressive cancer, sarcoma, for about 21 months before dying. Afterward, Kimmel donated about $5 million to a San Diego researcher who had been involved in Annie's case.

Realizing how much money he had and that he could be a part of helping cure cancer, Kimmel also linked up with GBMC's Cohen for guidance on what else he could do.

Among the many ways Kimmel has since contributed includes $3 million a year awarded to the country's top young scientists through the Sidney Kimmel Foundation for Cancer Research. He sits in on the annual meetings to select recipients and, without a medical background, manages to hold his own, even among some of the top scientific minds in the country.

"I don't think I'd be out of line if I called him a genius," said Cohen, who noted that Kimmel always keys in on the best candidates. "It's amazing. He just has a sense."

Kimmel has apartments on Fifth Avenue in New York and off Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square, as well as a house filled with works by Renoir, Picasso and other artists in Palm Beach, Fla.

But colleagues and friends say he fits no rich-guy mold. "He's not an egomaniac," said Butera, a real estate developer and friend for 40 years. "People love him."

Wall Street gives Kimmel high marks, too, for what he's done with his company. "He just completely involves himself in `what do my customers need and want, and how do I do the best for them.' He has a passion for it," said Mike Armstrong, chairman and chief executive officer of AT&T and chairman of the Hopkins Medicine Board of Visitors.

By all accounts, Kimmel's childhood was rough. He grew up poor in West Philadelphia. His family sometimes moved in the middle of the night because they couldn't pay the rent. He graduated from West Philadelphia High School, attended Temple University and completed two tours of duty in the U.S. Army.

He found his career in the 1960s when he went to work for a clothing manufacturer in Philadelphia, Matt Raab, and rose to become the company's president. In 1970, he founded Jones Apparel Group as a division of W.R. Grace and Co. He later bought the company, and by 1991, when Kimmel took it public, Jones Apparel Group had annual sales of about $334 million.

Kimmel diversified the company by buying such brands as Easy Spirit, Napier and Enzo Angiolini. The company also acquired the license for Lauren by Ralph Lauren and other labels. Jones Apparel, which includes the Jones New York brand, is projecting sales of about $4 billion for this year.

As for his own fortune - much of it made late in his life, when the company went public - Kimmel has been saying that he plans to give every last bit of it away.

And he's not wasting any time.

In New York the other day, after the finishing touches were put on the Hopkins deal, Kimmel turned to his friend, Butera, and said, "Wait a minute, when are we going to talk about the rest of it?"

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