Harry Weinberg, Baltimore's lone billionaire, whose eccentricities were dwarfed only by his fortune, died yesterday at Queen's Hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii, after an eight-year battle with bone cancer. He was 82.
Mr. Weinberg, who accumulated a fortune in real estate, municipal transit companies and other ventures during the last half-century, was a local example of the familiar American success story -- the son of immigrant parents, he quit school at 12, worked in his father's auto shop, sold newspapers on the side and eventually parlayed a series of remarkably successful business deals into enormous wealth.
In the end, he remained true to his roots by leaving virtually all of his money to a Baltimore-based foundation for the poor that bears his name and that of his late wife.
By rough estimate, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation will be among the nation's 12 largest -- worth at least $900 million and obligated to spend as much as $45 million a year to serve the poor.
"He was someone who brought himself up from nothing," said his younger brother, William Weinberg, who is to serve as a foundation trustee. "And I believe that if all the money in the world were suddenly taken away and everyone had to start over again, he'd still wind up with [his] money."
By all accounts, Harry Weinberg was a man with little interest in anything but business. Although he accumulated enormous wealth, he never bothered with the trappings. His offices were drab, his car was 10 or 15 years old, his clothes came off the rack, and his abhorrence of publicity was almost legend.
"I don't think he ever joined a country club," said his son, Morton Weinberg, who lives just outside Los Angeles. "He didn't play golf. He didn't play tennis. His business was his life. He didn't waste his time doing other things."
Harry Weinberg's mind was a whir of activity that worked around the clock in pursuit of profit. But he spoke in his own strange vocabulary -- a mishmash of words that made sense to people who knew him well but not to anyone else.
"It wasn't pidgin, it wasn't Yiddish, it had no accent," said Lawrence I. Weisman, an attorney who represented Mr. Weinberg in business dealings for 40 years and served with him on corporate boards. "You'd have to spend a substantial amount of time before you understood you were dealing with a genius. He just had this difficulty in expressing himself in ordinary English."
Nonetheless, Mr. Weinberg -- who was listed in the phone book and answered his own phone -- had no trouble communicating with reporters. If they called, he'd bark a gruff "no comment" and hang up.
Criticized as a callous landlord who neglected his properties on Howard Street and in other Baltimore neighborhoods, Mr. Weinberg didn't seem destined to end life with a grand act of public service. It wasn't until he was diagnosed as having cancer about eight years ago that he announced that he would give his money away after he'd finished making it.
He'd grown up in Baltimore, where the city's great philanthropists were revered, his son said. Like Johns Hopkins and George Peabody, he wanted to give something back to the community.
Mr. Weinberg wasn't particularly religious, but he strongly supported Jewish causes and charities. He also never forgot those who helped him.
As children, Mr. Weinberg and his siblings were treated free at St. Agnes Hospital. Years later, William Weinberg saw a large check to the hospital on his brother's desk and asked about it.
"Goddammit," Harry Weinberg told him. "You of all people ought to know what that's for."
Mr. Weinberg also developed a special concern for the elderly. During trips to Atlantic City, he avoided the casinos, instead spending time talking to old people on the Boardwalk, asking how they were making ends meet.
On his final 1989 pilgrimage to Israel -- a nation whose birth he witnessed firsthand in 1948 -- he asked to visit several of Tel Aviv's nursing homes.
It was a humid summer day, and Mr. Weinberg was surprised that the nursing homes were not air-conditioned. So he wrote a check for $1 million to pay for air-conditioning for every nursing home in Israel.
In Baltimore, he spent $20,000 to ensure that residents of the Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital receive premium ice cream twice every month.
He was born Aug. 15, 1908, in Galicia, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and lived there with his parents, two brothers and a sister until he was 4 years old, according to published accounts.
His father immigrated to the United States in 1912, first stopping in New York, then coming to Baltimore before sending for his family to join him. The family settled into a small house in Southwest Baltimore near Wilkens Avenue.
The elder Mr. Weinberg opened an automobile body and fender shop near Camden Station, a business in which all five of the Weinberg children eventually labored and learned the rudiments business, according to Mr. Weinberg's brother, William Weinberg.
A pugnacious youth given to daily fights with schoolmates, young Harry was quickly consigned to a class for disciplinary problems, where he remained for six years, according to his brother. He quit school after the sixth grade, went to work full-time at the shop and sold newspapers to add to his income.
Early in his business career, he showed a talent for finding profit in businesses that others thought had little potential. After learning about the tire business from a friend in Philadelphia, he bought a small mountain of used automobile tires before the United States entered World War II in 1941, then turned a neat profit by recapping and selling them when tires became a scarce.
He also moved into real estate, modestly at first, when many Baltimore properties were selling for a song during the Depression. He "never considered cash as something to put in a bank," observed Joseph L. Flannery in a 1963 profile of Mr. Weinberg in The Sun.
Mr. Weinberg rarely parted with real estate once he'd bought it. In downtown Baltimore, he accumulated 47 properties extending from Cathedral Street west to Martin Luther King Boulevard and from Monument Street south to Pratt Street, the Market Center Development Corp. said last year. The corporation is a quasi-public organization responsible for refurbishing the depressed west side of Baltimore's downtown.
Despite his lack of education, Mr. Weinberg had long amazed associates with his grasp of legal complexities and financial minutiae: "He wasn't an accountant, but he could read a 60-page analysis of a company's figures and tell you what the accountants were trying to hide. And he wasn't a lawyer, but he could walk into a room of corporate lawyers and be eight steps ahead of them," said Shale D. Stiller, attorney for the foundation.
Already a millionaire by the end of World War II, Mr. Weinberg retired briefly in 1948 at the age of 40. But he quickly found himself bored.
The same year he "retired," he bought bonds in the Baltimore Transit Co., which operated the city's trolleys and buses, at bargain prices and sold them later at an enormous profit. It was the beginning of a series of transit company purchases in the late 1940s and early 1950s, including lines in Scranton, Pa., Dallas, New York and, finally, Honolulu.
He bought the companies at a time when privately owned transit lines were losing money. But unlike other investors, Mr. Weinberg recognized the hidden value of the real estate holdings that transit lines maintained.
He was, in a sense, a corporate raider 30 years before anyone had ever heard of the phrase, his son said.
"He understood that there are a lot of corporations with sleeping assets, and those are good ones to invest in," Morton Weinberg said. "Only he used his own money rather than borrowing from other people or banks."
Harry Weinberg also spotted trends long before anyone else detected them, his son said. After visiting Honolulu in the early 1950s, he recognized that jet travel would make Hawaii's tropical islands accessible to middle-class tourists.
He acquired large holdings of land on Oahu and Maui -- properties that form the bulk of the estate and are now worth hundreds of millions of dollars in one of the nation's hottest real estate markets.
"His whole life was devoted to making money," said Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who described Mr. Weinberg as "one of the most unique individuals in my experience. He would start five sentences at time, and eventually he would finish them all."
In his day-to-day dealings with people, Mr. Weinberg was demanding and impatient.
"He was a very difficult man," his son said. "He had very high standards. He didn't have a great deal of patience for people who couldn't meet those standards."
He and his son often clashed, although Morton Weinberg said they always stayed in contact with one another. "I was extremely fond of my father and quite proud of him," he said. "But I found the best way to have good relations with him was not to see him too often."
Mr. Weinberg left nothing to his son, although $3 million is to go to his four grandchildren, according to William Weinberg and Mr. Stiller. Asked yesterday whether family members were universally pleased with the gift of the bulk of the fortune to charity, William Weinberg smiled and shrugged.
"What could anyone do about it anyway?" he said.
Mr. Weinberg is survived by his son, Morton, of Seal Beach, Calif.; three brothers, William, David and Nathan Weinberg, all of Pikesville; a sister, Betty Fine of Baltimore; four grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. His wife of 57 years, Jeanette, died in 1989.
Private services will be held Wednesday, with burial at the Hebrew Friendship Cemetery in East Baltimore.