A private philanthropy assumes a more public role


The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, a Baltimore philanthropy almost as reclusive as the couple it is named after, now appears ready to play a more public role in the city's life.

Yesterday, officials announced that the Weinberg Foundation had pledged $20 million toward the Johns Hopkins Hospital's cancer center -- the largest gift in the history of both the philanthropy and the hospital.

Last year, trustees of the foundation awarded $15 million to Sinai Hospital in Northwest Baltimore, where a building is now named after them. (Under the terms established by Mr. Weinberg, any gift for a capital project of more than $250,000 must result in

something with the Weinberg name on it -- from a plaque to a building name.)

And foundation officials are negotiating with administrators at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center about a major donation toward the nonprofit hospital's Community and Family Health Center in East Baltimore, although its size is likely to be smaller than the gift announced yesterday.

Bernard Siegel, the foundation's president, said the move did not represent a trend, just a recognition of another worthy project that will serve the citizens of Baltimore. "Dollarwise, the gifts are largest because the numbers are so large for hospitals," Mr. Siegel said.

In practice, Mr. Siegel said, the foundation gives a flurry of gifts each year that reach the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, with only a few major gifts reaching the millions.

Harry Weinberg was born in 1908 in Galicia in Eastern Europe, and immigrated to America four years later. A grade-school drop out, he lived in Baltimore for many years, building a real estate empire here and in Hawaii. He later became Hawaii's largest individual landowner.

The Weinbergs lived moderately and out of the public eye, and they lived the last part of their lives in Hawaii. Mrs. Weinberg died a year before her husband. They formally set up the foundation in 1959, and upon his death in 1990 Mr. Weinberg committed almost all of his personal assets to it. The foundation, the largest in Baltimore, was valued earlier this year at $950 million -- one of the nation's top 25 philanthropies. It gives away more than $45 million annually.

The day after his death from bone marrow cancer, The Sun wrote: "The Weinberg legacy to this city and state promises to be greater and more dynamic than that of the Blausteins, the Meyerhoffs, the Knotts or any of the better-known Baltimore families dedicated to philanthropy."

The men in whose care Mr. Weinberg left the foundation, true to his character, have been notoriously tight-lipped about their enterprise.

In an opinion piece published in the Oct. 22, 1992 editions of The Sun, Pablo Eisenberg, then co-chairman of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy chastised the foundation: "The five trustees of the Weinberg Foundation have apparently molded the institution in the image of its founder -- secretive, arrogant, contentious and cantankerous. The foundation and its trustees are both inaccessible and largely unaccountable."

But foundation trustees who were present at the Hopkins news conference yesterday stressed that the aim of Mr. and Mrs. Weinberg has always been to help the poor. "He would wave off the figures, the dollar amount," Mr. Siegel said. Mr. Weinberg would only ask, 'How many families will have to go through the trauma of this pain? How many families will this help?' "

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