The way South Baltimore businessman Jules Edward "Sonny" Morstein Jr., sees it, he owes something to the community in which his family has prospered.
"This city has given me a good life," said Morstein, 65. "How can I not give back?"
Nearly 25 years ago, several business owners along South Baltimore's Light Street asked one of their own to help renew their shopping district. Morstein, who runs the city's oldest family-owned jewelry store, stepped into the role of president of the Federal Hill Business Association. He has worked ever since to improve what is essentially South Baltimore's Main Street.
"We have been fighting for the city and fighting for small business," he said.
"And thanks to Sonny, we won," said Kevin J. Malachi, a former aide to former Mayor Martin O'Malley who is now vice president of the Prince George's County Economic Development Corp. "Sonny is the architect of this renewal. We never could have pulled this off without Sonny's leadership."
Morstein is the third generation of the family that established the jewelry business in 1898. Morstein's Jewelry has spent nearly all of its existence on Light Street. Some of its patrons are the grandchildren of original customers.
"Some say, ‘Are you still here?' when they come in," he said.
His activism does not stop at the business district. Morstein has also lent his support, in terms of time and money, to the South Baltimore Learning Center for nearly 20 years.
"Literacy is important on so many levels," he said. "An educated work force has never been more important. If you are reading below a fourth-grade level, how will you get a job?"
The nonprofit center offers literacy classes, life-skills training and career-preparation services from its building on East Ostend Street. Morstein has worked to enlist corporate sponsors, most notably Verizon. He is a donor, himself, and funds an annual $500 scholarship to one learning center graduate each year to go to college.
"I have seen lives changed because of this center," he said. "This organization gives people a second chance. These adults have families, jobs, transportation issues, but they have decided to make a change in their lives and they make time to earn their high school diploma."
He never misses a graduation and enjoys sharing the success stories. He recalls the rehabilitated drug addict who thanked the teachers for never letting him give up and the teenage children who spoke of their pride in their father for going back to school.
"For these people, a GED is like winning the Super Bowl," Morstein said. "They have absolutely worked harder than a normal high school graduate. This is a new start for so many people."
The center recently honored Morstein, a member of its advisory council, at a fundraiser, and its staff thanked him for "relationship building" throughout the South Baltimore community.
"There is no question that Sonny Morstein is a community leader and activist, generous in his nature, time and contributions," center director Sonia Socha said. "You might say he is a gem."