Bernie’s 90th Birthday Bash is Raising Millions
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Bernie’s 90th Birthday Bash is Raising Millions

The last thing Bernie Marcus, co-founder of The Home Depot, wanted for his 90th birthday was people making a fuss and holding a party. But that’s exactly what he will get.

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Married for over 40 years, Bernie and Billi Marcus are leaders in philanthropy in the Atlanta community.
Married for over 40 years, Bernie and Billi Marcus are leaders in philanthropy in the Atlanta community.

The last thing Bernie Marcus wanted for his 90th birthday was people making a fuss and holding a party. But that’s exactly what the billionaire businessman and philanthropist will get – and then some.

“He didn’t want it to happen,” said Mike Leven, Marcus’ friend and chairman and chief executive officer of the Georgia Aquarium, which will host the June 9 bash. “We wanted the city of Atlanta to honor him for what he’s done for the city of Atlanta.”

His friends and admirers will fete the nonagenarian (whose birthday was May 12) by pledging $90 million to benefit four Atlanta-centered projects among Marcus’ wide-ranging philanthropies.

“None of the four – the Georgia Aquarium, the Grady Health System’s Marcus Stroke & Neuroscience Center, the Marcus Autism Center, and the SHARE Military Initiative at the Shepherd Center – would exist without Marcus,” Leven said.

Bernie Marcus co-founded The Home Depot 40 years ago in 1979.

“He’s started a lot of things from scratch or he’s changed a lot of things from scratch,” Leven said. “In these cases, and many of the other things he’s done in his life, they are entrepreneurial gifts, gifts that start things. That’s a very unique characteristic of a philanthropist.”

Planning for the event began last September. “We didn’t want to do it without his permission. We asked. At first, he didn’t want to do it,” Leven said.

Once he relented, Marcus selected the recipients of the birthday donations.

For his part, Marcus (father of Atlanta Jewish Times publisher Michael Morris) told the AJT, “I have had nothing to do with my birthday party. It’s wonderful. My job is to show up and enjoy. I am looking forward to it. I appreciate my friends and partners creating this event for me and for the causes that are so close to my heart.”

Mike Leven and Bernie Marcus celebrate 10 years of the Georgia Aquarium in 2015.

Leven will serve as master-of-ceremonies for the event, whose co-chairs are Frank Blake, chairman of the Grady Memorial Hospital Corporation board; Doug Hertz, CEO and chairman of United Distributors, Inc., and Craig Menear, chairman, president, and chief executive officer of Home Depot Inc.

Arthur Blank, with whom Marcus created The Home Depot, is an honorary co-chair. Marcus was 49 years old when he and Blank were fired the same day from the Handy Dan home improvement store chain, dismissals that led to the creation of Home Depot. The first two Home Depot stores opened June 22, 1979, in the Atlanta area. Today there are more than 2,200 stores, employing about 400,000 people in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Marcus was the company’s first CEO and held that position for 19 years, also serving as chairman of the board until his retirement in 2002.

The other honorary co-chairs are Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, and Ken Langone, who arranged the original financing for Home Depot and became a co-founder along with Marcus and Blank.

The Marcus Foundation, Inc. has been the primary vehicle through which Marcus and his wife of 45 years, Billi, have given $2 billion to more than 400 nonprofits over three decades. Their priorities have been Jewish causes, healthcare and medical research, children and youth development, free enterprise and veterans’ services, and community support.

Marcus started life with little but learned the lessons of philanthropy at a young age. The child of Russian Jewish immigrants grew up on the fourth floor of a tenement in a tough neighborhood in Newark, N.J. His father was a carpenter, “strong as an ox, a great craftsman but a terrible businessman,” Marcus told Philanthropy magazine in 2012.

Piedmont Heart is one of Marcus’ many philanthropic endeavors.

“We lived in a tenement,” he told the magazine. “We had no money. Five cents was a major issue in our lives.” Marcus recalled that a nickel for ice cream was a special treat, though his mother would sometimes say, “‘We can’t have the ice cream today, we’re planting a tree in Israel instead,’ and the nickel would be sent off, if not to Israel, then to one charitable cause or another. I grew up knowing that this is what you do. It’s bred into me.”

Marcus had hoped to become a doctor, but the eventual cost of medical school was prohibitive. He earned a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy from Rutgers University and worked as a pharmacist before entering the discount store business.

“My parents, an immigrant couple struggling to make ends meet in Newark, taught me that generosity was a universal imperative no matter one’s station in life. You gave – if not from your wallet then your time and talent. It’s why I was serving on boards of nonprofits when I couldn’t find two nickels to rub together,” he said in an article published April 16 by the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

Marcus began to expand his reach when the life of a young Home Depot employee was saved by the City of Hope cancer center. “I went to [City of Hope] and said, ‘I want to join your board.’ I had never done anything with philanthropy before … and I didn’t have any money, but I worked diligently on that board,” Marcus said in a 2013 interview with The Bridgespan Group, an adviser on philanthropic issues.

In that interview Marcus said, “We came to Atlanta broke — broke! If the Home Depot didn’t make it, I was going to go into bankruptcy. We decided that we wanted to do something for the state of Georgia. We remembered the people that came and saved our lives.”

Grady’s Marcus Trauma Center is named for Bernie and Billi Marcus.

Marcus discussed his religious identity with Philanthropy magazine, saying, “I’m proud of the fact that I’m Jewish and what happened with the Holocaust is not going to happen again if I can do anything about it.”

Marcus and his wife have been members of The Temple since arriving in Atlanta more than 40 years ago.

Rabbi Peter Berg will speak at the June 9 event on video from Israel, where he will be leading a congregation trip. Berg was effusive in his comments about Marcus to the AJT:

“Bernie is a mentor and friend to me and The Temple. He is my favorite person in Atlanta to bounce ideas around with and to problem-solve. Bernie always has the right approach – always people centered.

“I especially admire his commitment to Judaism and Israel. Perhaps more than almost any Jewish philanthropist, Bernie really believes in the synagogue as the singular place to help build a strong Jewish identity. Over the years, he has supported so many of our forward-thinking initiatives. In recent years, The Marcus Foundation helped us to create the first congregational department of engagement – dramatically changing the way we operate – with a focus on the relational experience. This model has now been replicated in numerous synagogues in North America,” Berg said.

“Bernie has always been there for us. I also deeply admire his commitment to both medicine and free enterprise. The entire city of Atlanta reaps the benefits of Bernie’s generosity, every single day. In Jewish tradition, we focus our time and energy on the heart, the head, and the hand. In all three areas, Bernie stands head and shoulders above the rest. He is brilliant, compassionate, and works every day to make this world a better place for our children and our children’s children. There are not enough words in the English language to share my gratitude with Bernie as he reaches this precious milestone birthday.”

Marcus poses alongside the Waddlesworths, two Atlanta celebrities in their own right, as well as their caretakers.

In Israel, Marcus donated $25 million to aid construction of the Marcus National Blood Services Center, the world’s first underground blood processing, testing, storage, and distribution facility. The grant was the largest-ever benefiting Magen David Adom, Israel’s national ambulance, blood-services and disaster-relief agency.

Last year, Marcus told the AJT, “Having it in a safe and secure underground facility protects the blood transfusion supply from harm during missile attacks and earthquakes, ensuring availability of the blood Israelis need, when they need it.”

He also co-founded the Israel Democracy Institute, which bills itself as “an independent center of research and action dedicated to strengthening the foundations of Israeli democracy.”

Further proving their commitment to charity, Bernie and Billi Marcus were early signatories to The Giving Pledge, in which many of the world’s wealthiest people have pledged to donate their riches to philanthropies. The initiative was created by Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda.

In a 2010 letter to Buffett, Marcus said that “it has always been my belief that leaving enormous wealth for our children does nothing to stimulate their ability to make it on their own.

“To make quarterly profits is one thing, but changing just one life is so much better. … I hope you convince many others to enhance their own lives by sharing with others in a smart and business-like way. It truly is the secret to longevity of their health and state of mind,” Marcus said.

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