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The Quiet Giver

Away from the spotlight, Gilbert Rosenthal's years of quiet generosity and steadfast service now seem to mean more than ever.


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2001 has been a noisy, churning, gut-wrenching year.

When New Year's Day arrives in 2001, Richmonders, along with the rest of the country, are unsure who will be inaugurated as president. On the airwaves, lawyers shout and pundits argue. Economically there are shocks, too. The stock market dives, like a computer heaved from a hot-air balloon. Sudden dot-com millionaires are dumbstruck. Thousands of employees in Richmond are laid off. Then September comes, and tragedy strikes. There is panic and mayhem. Grief-stricken Americans search for answers. Virginia elects new state leaders. The president declares war and searches for healing.

And somehow, as the year comes to a close, quietness rises from the din. There are moments of silence that seem powerfully loud. There is remembrance. Love. Uncommon heroes. Unselfish contributions of blood and money. People talk to each other in new ways. They search for normalcy, and what that means in the first place.

We realize anew the importance of what has been there all along. People doing good. Reliability. Generosity. Caring for others. The value of consistent forces. Americans long for steadiness. As one member of Style's Richmonder of the Year committee puts it, "What we don't need is a flash in the pan."

Gilbert M. Rosenthal is anything but.

On a Monday afternoon in December, Rosenthal is back from the salad bar. He is a fit 5-foot-9, easy and relaxed in a blue-gray sweater. He is a week away from his 76th birthday. His smile is wide, like Yogi Berra's. He is a gentleman. Between sips of soup, he is friendly and engaging.

But he is here to say "No." He would rather not be Richmonder of the Year.

He already said this once, graciously, over the phone, when he learned a committee of community leaders had picked him to receive the title. He was grateful and honored, he said. He was "taken aback." Then he paused. "I am hesitating because I have pretty well removed myself from recognition and awards," he explained. Perhaps, he suggested, it could be discussed at lunch.

So here we are, in a dining room at the Westwood Club, a private racquet, fitness and social club near Bon Secours St. Mary's Hospital. And here is Rosenthal, trying to explain that he is not the philanthropist the Richmonder of the Year committee has called him.

The facts are not in his favor. Rosenthal and his wife, Fannie Straus, have given gifts that range from $100 to $500,000 to help more than 90 causes in the Richmond area. But he has given more than money. He has served on some charitable boards for more than 20 years. Quietly, he has worked his network of high-profile friends, drumming up financial support for capital campaigns from one end of the city to the other. And he has supported efforts to improve such diverse issues as education, medicine, senior care, race relations, religious understanding and the lives of children. His friends and associates say he has been a quiet force. His work has rippled across the city.

A sampling: the William Byrd Community House, the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, the United Way, the University of Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth University, J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, the Children's Museum of Richmond, Sheltering Arms Physical Rehabilitation Hospital, Richmond Renaissance Inc., Temple Beth Ahabah, temporary homeless shelter provider CARITAS, Maymont Foundation, The Community Foundation.

It is this year, says close friend Neil J. November, a Richmond philanthropist, that Rosenthal's charitable gifts of time and money seem to have peaked. This is the time to honor him, November says. "He's going to hate every minute of it, I'll tell you that," he warns. But "I think it's absolutely the right guy at the right time."

Still, says November, 77, who grew up with Rosenthal, it's difficult to point out a specific name-brand project that came about this year. "He has given to over 90 charities this year alone," November exclaims. And Rosenthal savors giving, too, the way others savor a second home or a fancy car. "He enjoys watching the money that he gives away do good."

Still, Rosenthal protests, "I'm not a philanthropist. Claiborne Robins is a philanthropist." As for appearing on the cover of Style, he worries about seeming self-aggrandizing; about putting his name before his causes. He is not the story, he says.

That may be precisely why he is.

Rosenthal may be financially well off now, but his family hardly started with a silver spoon. His grandfather gripped a needle.

It is the turn of the century, and Jacob Rosenthal, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, arrives in the United States. He is alone because there is not enough money to bring his wife and four children. Instead, he brings his skills as a tailor. He finds work in Philadelphia, where some relatives live. After a while, though, Philadelphia doesn't suit. It is too big for his liking. His relatives have contacts in Richmond, so he decides to take a train there. Eventually, Jacob saves enough for his family to join him in America.

One of his sons is Samuel, who grows up in Richmond and finishes pharmacy school at the Medical College of Virginia. He goes to war, returns to the city and opens a drug store in Jackson Ward with his brother Leo. He marries a woman from New York, whose parents were Russian immigrants too, and on Dec. 11, 1925, they have a son named Gilbert Rosenthal..

Rosenthal boasts now about being born in Richmond, having never lived outside the city's borders — not even in Henrico, he adds. But he has earned more from his father than a Richmond birth certificate. Among other things, Rosenthal gained a work ethic passed down through the family business, Standard Drug Co., a midsize chain of drug stores he sold to CVS Corp. in 1993.

The steady growth and eventual sale of the business, Rosenthal is well aware, have put him and his wife in a fortunate position. The financial rewards he and his family have reaped allow him the resources to give significantly. He gives consistently, too, an average of 5 to 6 percent of his assets and half his income each year. The idea is hardly complex; his motivation for giving is simple. "Well," he says, "I tell myself that we do it to really help people that are much less fortunate than we are." How much have they given away over the years? Rosenthal says he doesn't know, and probably wouldn't disclose it if he did.

Rosenthal is no unilateral giver. He and his wife, Fannie, are a team. Though by now, says Fannie, "We're both on the same wavelength." After all, they've known each other since the 1930s.

Rosenthal grew up in a house his father bought for $9,500 at 3902 W. Franklin St.; Fannie's family lived on the 2600 block of Monument Avenue. They both attended Beth Ahabah and Thomas Jefferson High School. They both were members of the Jefferson Lakeside Club. And they both had eyes for each other early on — although Fannie thinks she paid attention first. When he was about 10 and she was 8, she guesses, "I knew I was going to marry him — but he didn't know that."

The two started dating in their teen-age years. It was easy to fall in love, says Rosenthal: "Well, she was cute. She's got a spark. She's anything but shy and retiring — she's the opposite. … She's very outgoing, very outspoken, too. We always were attracted to each other."

But World War II came between them for a while.

Rosenthal was in high school when war struck. He decided to take the Navy up on its V-12 program. According to the deal, he would get two years' worth of college in an accelerated, 16-month program. Afterward, he would attend midshipman's school to become a Naval officer and enter the service. So in 1943, he enrolled in the University of Richmond's V-12 program. He went to Navy midshipman's school and became an officer. But while he trained in the Caribbean, he says, "Truman dropped the atomic bomb." With the war at a close, Rosenthal went back to UR to get his degree, with a major in history and a minor in math.

He got the girl too. "We just knew we were going to get married — that's all," Fannie says. They did. Within nine years, they had four children — two girls and two boys. (Jerry, now 52, runs a medical-consulting business and a farm in Louisa County; Jean, now 51, is a conferences producer and marketing representative, who lives in Lawrence, Kan.; Thomas, 47, lives in Richmond and is co-owner of MedOutcomes, a continuing-education source for pharmacists; and Nancy, 45, also a Richmonder, works with local charities and is raising two children.)

On Jan. 3, 2002, Gilbert and Fannie will celebrate their 54th wedding anniversary.

During the war, Rosenthal's father and two uncles had been focusing on building Standard Drug. By the time Rosenthal married, in 1948, the three brothers had gone from starting their first drug store to owning a chain of 11 that employed 25 pharmacists. They had caught onto a trend that is now ubiquitous: Along with pharmacy services, Standard Drug offered an array of merchandise at cut-rate prices.

"They hit on a good idea," Rosenthal says — especially when the Depression came along, and low prices were a necessity. It was the first of such drugstore chains in Virginia. Rosenthal joined the business.

Because he had no direct pharmacy background, Rosenthal learned what he could about the industry. He focused on the business side — negotiating leases, hiring employees and deciding on such strategies as where to open new stores. He earned a reputation as being open, caring and fair, recalls John Beckner, who went to work at the Laburnum Avenue store in 1980 and worked his way up to Standard's director of pharmacy operations.

"It was nice being able to walk across the office and bounce an idea off the owner of the company," says Beckner, now director of pharmacy and health services at Ukrop's. "He didn't always agree with everything, but he was a good listener. … He didn't shy away from saying no. But he didn't do it in a way to discourage you from approaching him again with a similar idea or suggestion."

Rosenthal didn't mind saying no to his son Thomas, either, who came to the business in 1976 after graduating from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Thomas ran the day-to-day side of the business; Gilbert remained as chairman. Apparently, their styles were complementary.

"I was never what you would call a great risk-taker," says Rosenthal, describing his business approach as conservative. But his son Tom — who now also serves as chairman of the Valentine Richmond History Center — says his father was no old fogy, either. He listened to Tom about putting in pharmacy computers before they were standard; he launched new kinds of marketing. "Eventually, I came to realize he was brilliant," Tom says.

The company flourished. Rosenthal's youngest daughter, Nancy Belleman, joined the business, too. By the early '90s, Standard Drug had 60 stores, from the Tidewater area to Washington, D.C., and through the Shenandoah Valley.

But the industry had changed dramatically by then. Chain stores such as CVS and Rite Aid were popping up everywhere. Grocery stores like Ukrop's and chains like Wal-Mart were offering pharmacy services, too. Midsize chains like Standard were being snapped up across the country. "It was all a consolidation game," Rosenthal says.

In 1993, Rosenthal faced the decision of what would become of Standard, a business by now 75 years old. His father had died in 1971. But his family had kept it steaming along. Now Tom and Nancy, the next generation, were making their mark.

But the stores weren't as profitable as they once had been. And to face the oncoming competition would require modernization — and a huge loan. Rosenthal had doubts about the futures of even the biggest players. In the end, the family decided to sell to CVS. It was difficult but necessary, Rosenthal says. "It was the right decision. As you look around, you'll notice that there's a drugstore on every other corner. And they're all struggling." In October, for example, CVS announced it would close 200 stores.

Tom took the sale hard. Of the day they signed the papers, he says, "I think I probably blocked [it] from my mind." But he recalls his father telling him, "There's a lot more to do in the world." The family took cash for the sale rather than stock in CVS. Rosenthal declines to disclose the amount. "I wouldn't describe it as a fortune," he says, laughing. But, he adds, "It afforded us the opportunity to contribute more."

Of course, Rosenthal's windfall in 1993 wasn't the beginning of his giving. He had been contributing to causes and working on boards for years.

One of the earliest was the William Byrd Community House, which he took an interest in 25 to 30 years ago. The organization, founded by nurses and social workers to help the low-income Oregon Hill area, provides services to individuals and families of need in inner-city areas.

Rosenthal joined the board — and began a 10- to15-year board membership — after his friend Neil November introduced him to it. "They were doing good work with kids," Rosenthal says. He was particularly impressed with Executive Director Jody McWilliams' efforts to ease the integration between black and white neighborhoods.

Before Medicaid and Medicare existed, some 30 years ago, another of Rosenthal's friends, Scott & Stringfellow Inc. Chairman Buford Scott, drew his attention to Sheltering Arms. It had been a free hospital, filling in the gap that government programs had yet to fill. But that was changing. Rosenthal joined a group to study what Sheltering Arms could become. The group decided what was lacking in the area was a rehabilitation hospital, which is the role Sheltering Arms takes today.

Rosenthal also took an interest in the community-college system, which Virginia established in 1966. Trouble was, the Richmond area still didn't have one five years later. Rosenthal was appointed by City Council to the first board of what would become J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. It was the state's last system to start, in 1972. Rosenthal helped focus state legislators' attention on it, he says. He stayed on the board eight years and remained on its foundation board until two years ago.

Rosenthal continues to be a loyal supporter of the University of Richmond, for which he and his wife have established, along with the Marcus and Carole Weinstein family, a chair of Jewish and Christian Studies. He has been a member of the University's board of trustees since 1980. He is a key player — especially on trips to solicit donors, says Chris Withers, UR's vice president for advancement. "He's the kind of guy you love to have go with you, because he not only opens doors, but people respect him so much they can't wait to sit down and hear what he's got to say." As a committee chairman, Withers says, Rosenthal is able to encourage discussions from committee members, yet "runs a meeting that is crisp and to the point."

Across town, at Virginia Commonwealth University, Rosenthal gives equal time. He supports VCU's School of Pharmacy, in honor of his father and uncle, as well as the cardiology department at VCU's Medical College of Virginia, where he is working to establish a professorship in honor of retired cardiac surgeon Richard Lower. When VCU President Eugene P. Trani first came to VCU in 1990, he was given some advice, he says. "This was the guy," Trani says, "if I was going to understand Richmond, I had to get to know Gil Rosenthal." Now the two enjoy playing golf together from time to time.

One of Rosenthal's more recent projects is The Community Foundation. He was attracted to the idea that it would consolidate donations into a large fund, then distribute grants in varying amounts. It "mainly supports a lot of startup, worthwhile, human-needs charities — all types," says Rosenthal, who joined its board six years ago. They might give $10,000, he says, which is a drop in the bucket to huge charities, but is "very meaningful" to a small one.

Rosenthal's work goes on. Two years ago, Rosenthal's daughter Nancy took the reins of a capital campaign to launch an expanded and redesigned Children's Museum. Rosenthal joined the small committee to drive fund-raising. He has also given to help the Beth Sholom Home of Virginia, which runs a senior housing complex, a nursing home and an assisted-living facility. This year, he and his wife gave $500,000 toward a $1 million endowment to help seniors who can't afford assisted living. He and his wife also visit residents there every Sunday.

Rosenthal has also contributed to a huge fund-raising effort by the Jewish Federation of Richmond to expand and renovate the Jewish Community Center and make improvements to the Rudlin Torah Academy. And he has supported Caritas, Maymont, the Virginia Holocaust Museum and the Council for America's First Freedom.

"His impact is just all over the place," Trani says. Finding out about the causes Rosenthal supports, he says, is "almost like peeling an onion."

That's the way Rosenthal prefers it: being under wraps and a generalist in his giving. Despite his reluctance to be featured for this award and story, he agreed to participate in an effort to ensure information was accurate.

"He's a moving force in an almost unlimited number of organizations," November says. "You'll almost always find him in the left-hand list of board members [on] letterhead. ... He won't be the president; he avoids that as best he can. … He surfaces not in the leadership capacity, but in the area where the policies are formulated; he is really the one who does the job."

Somehow, there is time for play, too.

Rosenthal enjoys golf and tennis. He lifts weights twice a week with his wife. He likes to embark on big vacations with his family — 18 members in all, including his four children and eight grandchildren. He spends much of his time with friends too. He and his wife enjoy entertaining them in their Wilton Road home, which some friends jokingly refer to as the "Wilton Hilton." Rosenthal plays bridge with a group of men every Wednesday, as he has for about 50 years, his wife says. A group of friends that lightly call themselves the "Secret Six" meet for lunch every week. (It includes November and other such Richmond marquee names as financial analyst David Long, real estate magnate Morton Thalhimer Jr., retired National Seal Works owner Robert Reinhard and Schwarzschild Jewelers President Stewart Kasen.) Of the group, November says "Gilbert is certainly the paternal leader."

Today, Rosenthal says he and his wife are where they want to be. They are enjoying themselves, especially since Rosenthal has seen Fannie through two bouts of cancer — four months ago, she received a clean bill of health after undergoing treatment for lymphoma. Watching her overcome the sickness, Rosenthal says, has reinforced his giving. "I think it makes you decide that … what's important is, you're lucky enough to be able to survive, and you're going to try not to worry about the little things as much. Focus on the bigger things."

"We are very fortunate," he says. "As Jews, it's a pretty tough history for the Jewish people for the last 2,000 years — you had to be pretty good to survive. … And my family survived, and I survived unscathed. How lucky could I be?"

November says Rosenthal's life isn't about luck, though. It's about choosing to give, and following through. "His biggest accomplishment is what most people have been told to do and don't do," November says, "and that is make the world a better place than they found it."


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