Leonard Whitehouse

Clothing broker helped establish a business by cultivating markets for discarded goods in Africa and the Middle East

December 24, 2008|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

Leonard Whitehouse, who took clothing donated to charities and established an export market for it in West Africa and the Middle East, died of heart disease Monday at the North Oaks retirement community. He was 90.

Born in Baltimore and raised on Fulton Avenue, he was a 1935 City College graduate. Whitehouse was 15 when a family friend, Solomon Schapiro, hired him to work in his used-clothing business. In those days, discarded garments were ripped into rags used as wipers for machinery or in roofing insulation or paper.

At night, Mr. Whitehouse went to law school and received a degree from the University of Baltimore in 1938. A 1997 Sun profile of him said he could never find a job he liked. After World War II service in the Army, he returned to S. Schapiro and Sons.

In 1947, he joined with a member of the Schapiro family, Daniel Schapiro, to start a business, Schapiro & Whitehouse, for many years at Parkin and McHenry streets.

"Starting the business was pretty stupid of us," Mr. Schapiro said in the 1997 interview. "We sat in the breakfast room of my house on Dorchester Road and talked until we figured out what to do."

His partner focused on rags. Mr. Whitehouse established the secondhand clothing division.

"Middle Easterners, Whitehouse learned, would buy men's jackets and shirts," The Sun's article said. "In search of foreign markets, he took the first of many trips to Africa in the early 1950s.

Back in Baltimore, he oversaw a clothing sorting and grading operation. Clothes, which the company purchased from charities, were carefully graded by quality, color and type. Mr. Whitehouse hired employees who sifted through tons of give-away dresses, shirts, coats, pants and blouses.

He also traveled extensively in Nigeria, Benin, Togo and the Ivory Coast to find local merchant buyers.

"He was good at finding customers in those overseas markets," said his daughter, Terry Whitehouse of Washington. "He had amazing stories about being held at gunpoint while going into the far reaches of the countries where he did business. He was once on a small plane when the engine caught fire. But he made friends wherever he went, and he'd be invited back for weddings."

His business became the largest clothing-grading operation in the United States, The Sun's 1997 article said. His employees processed a million pounds a week from the Salvation Army, Goodwill Industries and the St. Vincent dePaul Society.

Mr. Shapiro sold his interest in the original business in the 1970s. He then worked independently; in 1994 he formed a new entity, Whitehouse & Schapiro, which remains in business and deals in the recycling of secondhand clothing.

"He was a leader in the field and was very venturesome. He loved that business," said his partner, William K. Schapiro. "He was one of the first people to sell used clothing to the lower-income countries."

Mr. Whitehouse, who played tennis and golf, was a member of the Bridge Club of Baltimore. He also collected African art and donated much of it to the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Park School and Morgan State University.

Services will be held at 10 a.m. today at Sol Levinson & Bros., 8900 Reisterstown Road.

In addition to his daughter, survivors include another daughter, Jody Whitehouse of Voorhees, N.J.; a sister, Evelyn Landau of Pikesville; and four grandchildren. His wife of 25 years, the former Lita "Cissy" Libauer, died in 1983. His second wife, Rita Malchowsky Whitehouse, died in 2006.

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