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Philanthropist Herman Spertus dies at 105

CHICAGO, April 10 (JTA) — Herman Spertus loved to tell the story of how, in 1923, he and his brother were able to elude the Communist authorities in their native Ukraine and make it to the United States by way of Canada, just days before a ruling took effect that would have prevented anyone from Russia or Ukraine from entering the country. That trip “could never be repeated,” he told a visitor at the time of his 100th birthday. “If you tried to do it twice, it could never be.” The same thing might be said of Herman Spertus’ remarkable life, which spanned the 20th century and was in many ways a microcosm of life and opportunity during the period. Spertus, an entrepreneur, businessman, Jewish communal leader, artist and patron of the arts, died April 5 at the age of 105. Along with his brother Maurice, he created what is now known as the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies and the Spertus Museum in downtown Chicago, and continued to be active in its affairs until close to the end of his life. Dr. Howard A. Sulkin, the institute’s president, praised Herman Spertus’ “passion, commitment to lifelong learning, and clarity of thought (which) have been a source of guidance to all those around him. His noble character helped to bring about innumerable noble deeds,” he said. Spertus was born in 1901 into a middle-class Jewish family in a small town in czarist Russia. He studied engineering and quickly became fascinated by the new machinery and techniques that marked the beginning of the technical revolution. Eventually, anti-Semitism and pogroms forced their family to leave the country. After the two brothers’ harrowing trip to America, they settled in Chicago, where the rest of the family was already living, and took jobs working in a lamp factory. Soon they decided they wanted to try out some techniques of their own and, after less than two years in their adopted country, started their own business in the Maxwell Street neighborhood. When the Depression hit, the factory went into bankruptcy. But in 1933, their entrepreneurial spirit intact, Herman and Maurice realized that the growing popularity of Kodak’s new Brownie camera meant the market for photo frames was also growing. They opened a new business, Metalcraft Corp., that became the first in the country to mass-produce picture frames. The company thrived and eventually, under the name of Intercraft, became the largest manufacturer of picture frames in the world, employing more than 1,800 workers. During World War II, the brothers stopped producing consumer goods to make optical instruments for the U.S. Navy. The precision instruments were formerly only made in Germany. After the war, with the business continuing to thrive, Herman Spertus — by this time married to the former Sara Levin and the father of five children — began to develop an interest in Jewish education. Along with Maurice, he became an ardent supporter of what was then called the College of Jewish Studies. At the same time Maurice created the Spertus Museum as a home for his extensive and valuable collection of Judaica. In 1970, the school was renamed Spertus College to honor the family’s generosity. Eventually the college and museum became the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies. Herman Spertus stayed involved with the institution for the rest of his life, continuing to come to board meetings — sometimes taking the train by himself — into his 100s. Last year, he participated in a groundbreaking ceremony for the new home of the institute to be built next to its current site on South Michigan Avenue. Spertus was involved with other Jewish institutions as well. He was active with the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago beginning in 1959 and in 1980 became the general chairman of the JUF’s annual campaign — at 79, the oldest person ever to hold that office. He also funded the first gallery of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and served on its board for many years. Other recipients of his generosity, both of his time and financial resources, include the Bernard Horwich Jewish Community Center, Council for Jewish Elderly and the United Way. Art was another of Spertus’ abiding passions, both as a collector and a practitioner. While his brother amassed a vast Judaica collection, Herman developed an interest in the avant garde and focused on abstract expressionism. He became a friend to many of the most important artists of the time, including Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollack and Franz Kline. His son Philip, who joined the family business in the 1950s, recalled that when he and his father took sales trips to New York, they would conduct their business during the day, then “hang out” with Herman’s artist friends in Greenwich Village in the evenings. Herman Spertus’ own career as an artist began when he started taking painting lessons at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1932 and continued throughout his life. “Through painting,” he once said, “I became me.” His canvasses, mostly in an abstract style, have been exhibited at a number of venues in the Chicago area, and he continued painting until close to the end of his life. Though he met with great success in many areas, Spertus’ life also had more than its share of tragedy. His son Harry died of cancer at age 35 in 1974 and another son, Eugene, who had been president of Intercraft, died of the same disease in 1986 at age 46. A beloved grandson, David, was killed at age 21 in a mountain-climbing accident on the Matterhorn. After 45 years of marriage, Herman’s wife Sara died in 1978, and Maurice, the brother he was so close to that the two of them were described as “one soul in two bodies,” died in 1986. Spertus was remarried in 1981 to an old friend, Hilda Yablong, who survives him. When asked what factors contributed to his longevity, Spertus always contended that he didn’t know. But in a letter he wrote six years ago addressed to everyone who made a donation in honor of his 99th birthday, he attributed his long life to “loving and supportive relationships” and an upbeat attitude. “I have tried to view people and events only in the most positive light,” he wrote, “and tried to see the soul and vision of an opportunity instead of focusing on the small, often irrelevant ideas.” He continued, “No matter how unhappy I am about someone, I try to think about the good they have done.” Besides his wife, Spertus is survived by his sons Philip and Robert and daughter Anita; 13 grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren. Contributions in his memory may be made to the Herman Spertus Acquisition Fund at the Spertus Museum, 618 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60605.