“Do you know what was even better than making my first million dollars?” Manuel Mayerson once asked a group of young professionals who had gathered to hear him speak about his long and successful career as an entrepreneur and philanthropist. “It was giving away my first million dollars!” he said with a twinkle in his eye.
That was Manuel D. Mayerson…a truly extraordinary man who lived a life rooted in Jewish values and defined by his devotion to his family and community. And even though he died this past Thursday at his home in Amberley Village at the age of 90, he truly lived every one of those years with purpose and meaning, and touched the lives of countless others all along the way.
Manuel “Manny” Mayerson was a first generation American of Russian immigrant parents who grew up on Greenwood Avenue in Avondale. As a boy he preferred playing baseball and hanging out with his buddies, to sitting in a classroom or practicing piano. As a teen and throughout his life one of his favorite pastimes was dancing. He spent countless hours at Coney Island’s Moonlight Gardens “cutting it up” on the dance floor. He was also a bandleader in high school and an active member of Kadima AZA, a chapter of B’nai B’rith’s national Jewish youth movement, and had several jobs, including working for a beer manufacturer and selling shoes.
A favorite story that Manuel used to tell regarding one of those jobs illustrates his early aptitude for being a great problem solver. When he was hired to work at the shoe store he was told “if a customer leaves without buying something you can just go right out the door with him because you’ll be fired.” Manuel realized that most of the salespeople there didn’t last the day, and decided he didn’t want to join their ranks. So if one of his customers got ready to leave without making a purchase, he would invite them to stop by the front counter to receive a gift from him for stopping by. He had pre-arranged with the woman at the counter to give each of these people shoelaces, place them in a store bag, and to charge him for whatever she gave in gifts. Not only was the shop owner impressed to see every one of Manuel’s customers leaving with a “purchase” bag, the recipients were thrilled to get something for nothing, and when they came back in the future, they would of course insist that Manuel be the one to wait on them.
“From the very beginning Dad was an achiever,” explained his son, Neal. “He was bound to succeed at everything he did because he was super smart, perceptive, and he loved people. On top of it all, he had a work ethic that was forged in the Great Depression. He knew what it meant to work hard”
Although Manuel’s father and grandfather had been successful in the real estate business, when the Great Depression hit, things changed very quickly. In order to help make ends meet Manuel took a job, along with his father, collecting rents on properties owned by the bank. And even though times were difficult his family kept a jar in the kitchen for collecting spare change for others who were less fortunate, keeping true to the value of tzedakah that had been passed down to them from generation to generation. So when Manuel went on to became a driving force in the world of real estate, it was no surprise that he continued to give of his time and money to help others.
Even though he ended up with a successful career in real estate, he started off on a very different path. After high school, Manuel enrolled at The Ohio State University and majored in dentistry. However, fate intervened when his parents were involved in a very bad car accident, making it necessary for him to leave school and go back home to help out. And although he never returned to college, he was endowed with a strong mind and character, a bright spirit, and unusual amounts of creativity and promise, which helped him make his mark and go on to become a pioneer in the shopping center industry.
He often talked about an article he read in the paper that set the wheels of his future in motion. It outlined President Eisenhower’s plan to build an interstate highway system across the country. While this new plan would make it possible for people to live further from the city, he knew they would need convenient shopping. That’s what prompted him to build the first of many shopping centers in what was then the “outskirts” of town, among them Cincinnati’s first two indoor shopping malls in Beechmont and Kenwood that he built for Carl and Robert Lindner.
Manuel established the Mayerson Company in 1949 and quickly became known for his creativity, integrity and “sixth sense” regarding business ventures. “Dad knew how to take things and turn them on their edge. He could see the value in things when others couldn’t,” shared his son, Neal. “He was honest and very perceptive about people. He knew how to frame things in a way that would serve their interests and his.”
Although he was becoming more and more successful in business, nothing was more important to Manuel than Rhoda, the love of his life. “The second I laid eyes on her, I knew I was going to marry her,” Manuel used to say when he’d reminisce about seeing his beloved wife for the very first time. “Even after 68 years of marriage, his love, respect and adoration of her never diminished. It just grew,” said Neal. “Dad always said he was the luckiest guy in the world that she was his wife.”
And according to Manuel, there were no lengths to which he wouldn’t go to be with her. He used to tell the hilarious story of a time when he was in the Navy, stationed at Navy Pier in Chicago. He and Rhoda were engaged at the time and she had plans to come see him during his next furlough. Unfortunately, he knew he wouldn’t get much time off to spend with her so he hatched a brilliant plan.
He had heard that anyone who volunteered to compete in an upcoming boxing match would get the entire weekend off, even if they lost. Wanting to spend as much time with his fiancé as possible, Manuel threw his hat in the ring, and decided to compete in the match. “After all it was win-win,” he’d say. He trained and conditioned and when the big day came, he felt as ready as he’d ever be to take on his opponent.
“We both danced into the ring to cheers from the crowd. As we took off our robes I noticed that my opponent had this weird deformity—giant ripples all over his body—what some would call ‘muscles,’” he’d chuckle! “I had what some would call ‘Jewish muscles’ so I knew right then and there I was in for it. Needless to say he beat me, in more ways than one! I ended up with eyes and ears so red and swollen I practically couldn’t see or hear. It was so bad in fact, that when I came out to get Rhoda she walked right past me and didn’t even recognize me. Oh well, even though I was completely disfigured and in terrible pain, at least we got to spend the entire weekend together!”
The couple’s love and admiration for one another was obvious to all who knew them, especially their children. “How many husbands sit down to dinner each night before the meal is served and say to their wives, ‘I want to be the first to thank you for this wonderful meal,’” shared Manuel’s daughter, Arlene. “When my parents were getting ready to go out on the weekend, my father never failed to say to us, ‘Doesn’t your mother look beautiful?’ He never stopped being enamored of her.”
With a young wife, two small children and a budding career, Manuel was on top of the world. But suddenly at the age of 30 he became very sick and was diagnosed with life-threatening cancer. He ended up having radical surgery and was told that the only way they would know if they got it all was if he was still alive in 10 years. One year later, their youngest son Neal was born. “That was their message of optimism,” said Neal. “They must have believed so strongly that he was going to beat this thing, that they made the conscious decision to have another child. My dad would have never agreed to leave his wife with three young children to provide for on her own if he didn’t believe that he was going to pull through. I think that’s why he always had this special appreciation for life and understood that it’s given to you to be in it. He lived his life fully and applied his motto for business to his entire life: to put all assets, personal and financial, to their highest and best use. His was a life lived ‘out loud!’”
Over the years, Manuel distinguished himself in brokerage, development, management and acquisition of real estate. In addition to developing, owning and managing multifamily residential communities and landmark commercial properties in downtown Cincinnati, he brought something to the Queen City that most people take for granted today. “I remember one night while walking with my dad in New York City; he kept looking up at all the buildings. I thought he was admiring the architecture,” explained Neal. “Actually, he was looking at the lights on the buildings and realized that lighting up the Cincinnati skyline could add to its architectural importance. When he returned home, he set out to light up the Central Trust Tower, now the PNC Bank Building, which became the sole light in the city’s skyline. Today, most other buildings have followed suit.”
A pinnacle of his real estate career was the development of Cincinnati’s premiere Class A downtown office building—the Scripps Center. From envisioning how an old garage could be used as a strategic location, to being intimately involved in designing, constructing, leasing and managing the building, Manuel brought his talents and experience together to create this crowning achievement.
“The first time I met Manny I was a very young associate attorney who’d been sent over to his office to drop off some legal papers,” said Michael Oestreicher, a partner with Thompson Hine and the current president of The Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati. “I recall vividly how he invited me to sit down for a chat and then went on to describe some of his hopes and aspirations for Cincinnati, including his dream to construct a building that would impact the skyline of the city he loved so dearly. That my own office has been in that building for over 20 years has served as an inspiring reminder of the lasting impact of mentoring and generously giving your time to others.”
Manuel was known as a “people person” who had a great sense of humor and a zest for life. “Because my Grandpa was wealthy, people assumed that he was driven by it, but he wasn’t,” said Manuel’s grandson, Adam. “He loved having fun with people. He was the life of the party. He was happy when others were happy and liked helping people feel good about themselves.”
“My dad used to get so much pleasure out of doing for others and took a personal interest in just about anyone who crossed his path,” said Neal. “He had a soft spot for underdogs. He helped them get back to flourishing when everyone else had turned their backs on them. I am sure that is what motivated him to start the Hebrew Free Loan Society in the ‘80s to help assist Jewish families in need with free loans to start businesses.”
While he was developing his career, he and his wife Rhoda were active in the community. From sharing their time and talent on many boards, to providing turkey dinners during Thanksgiving for those in need, to sharing their wealth, Manuel and Rhoda are known for their passion of giving over many years. Ultimately this led to another crowning achievement, the creation of The Manuel D. and Rhoda Mayerson Foundation, the family foundation that Manuel established with his beloved wife in 1986. Its board is comprised of his family and reflects the couple’s heartfelt motto—to “give while you live.”
And while The Mayerson Foundation has given generously over the years, Manuel always insisted that the focus shouldn’t be on how much it gives, but rather on how much good it can accomplish. As much a visionary in philanthropy as he was in business, he never wanted to just be a “check writer” and always worked to find creative ways to be involved.
Over the past 25 years the foundation has had a profound impact on the Greater Cincinnati community and beyond, and has touched the lives of thousands of people from all walks of life. “I don’t want anyone to think for a minute that this foundation was founded by my wife and I,” Manuel was quoted as saying in a 2002 Cincinnati Enquirer article. “It was founded generations before me, though not with money. It was founded by my ancestors on the traditions and heritage of sharing, and their attitude toward the community,” he explained.
The work of the Mayerson Family Foundation is broad and far-reaching but represents the issues that Manuel held dear. “First and foremost, Dad was very, very proud to be Jewish,” said Neal. “He had a strong sense of his duty to the Jewish people and had a respect for the institutions that are part and parcel of our Jewish community.”
Manuel felt that work related to Jewish continuity was of the highest importance. He believed that in order to preserve and grow the Jewish community it was essential that it be welcoming to all—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform. To that end, Manuel was an advocate for and governor of the Hebrew Union College, Jewish Institute of Religion. In this role, he helped to establish Mayerson Hall, which housed the college’s first distance learning technology equipment, the Fieldwork Institute, pairing rabbinic students with congregational rabbis to learn about practical matters, and contributed to Student Scholarship Funds, recruitment efforts, the American Jewish Archives and much more.
As the foundation grew, new Jewish programming was created to provide opportunities to Jewish young adults through the Access initiative, families with young children through the Shalom Family initiative and interfaith families through the Fusion initiative, helping them connect to one another.
“When I moved to Cincinnati for rabbinical school I was concerned about making Jewish friends outside of the seminary. Little did I know that I would meet the most amazing young Jewish professionals and participate in social, educational and ritual programs with them,” said HUC-JIR rabbinic student, Ariel Boxman. “When reflecting on my last four years in Cincinnati, my greatest memories are all from Access events. Parties, community service opportunities and Shabbat observances with the Access Jewish community have filled my days in Cincinnati with life and meaning. When choosing to stay in Cincinnati post ordination, one of the greatest factors in my decision was Access. It is the friends I made, the community I have become a part of and the warmth I feel every time I attend an event or function,” she added. “I owe my gratitude to Mr. Mayerson for believing in the value of Jewish community.”
Nothing pleased Manuel more than learning of a new marriage that could trace its initial spark back to the work of the Jewish Giving Department of the foundation.
In fact, when Stephanie and Jack Rubin, Access’ first couple to become engaged, made the announcement, Manuel and Rhoda immediately arranged to take them out for a special celebratory lunch at the Queen City Club. “Thanks to Mr. Mayerson and The Mayerson Foundation, we got the greatest gift of all—each other! Neither of us expected we’d meet our special someone the night we arrived for an Access event,” explained Jack. “Maybe that’s why we’re so grateful to the Access program, the professionals at the Mayerson Foundation and the whole Mayerson family.”
Manuel felt that the most significant single grant the foundation made was to help build the new Jewish Community Center, The Manuel D. and Rhoda Mayerson JCC in Amberley Village. Every time a friend or relative came in from out of town he would proudly take them on a personal tour of the building.
“I had the honor of getting to know Manny pretty closely over the years,” said Shep Englander, chief executive director of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati. “He used to have lunch in the JCC’s J Cafe as often as he could. He always asked insightful questions about the needs of the community. And he’d usually throw in a good joke too. Anyone who got to know Manny will never forget his sincerity, insight and most of all, his humor.”
Manuel also felt strongly about providing for those who were in difficult circumstance through no fault of their own. His heart broke for children who were ill or suffered abuse and so for years he served on the board of Children’s Hospital of Cincinnati as the foundation initiated efforts to begin the Mayerson Center for Safe & Healthy Children, and it supported the Treatment Center of Hematology and Oncology and its Bone Marrow Transplant Unit. Most recently, due to Manuel’s strong interest in leveling the playing field for the most vulnerable, the foundation provided both capital and operating support to Lighthouse Youth Services to build a new shelter for homeless young adults.
Manuel was deeply impressed with the work of the FreeStore/FoodBank and, while he always advocated to “teach a man to fish,” he also recognized the importance of having basic needs met and knew that the work of The Mayerson Food Distribution Center would make a significant difference in the lives of so many across the region.
He was a driving force behind the creation of the Mayerson Academy for Human Resource Development, providing public school teachers with training on best practices in education in a state of the art facility.
Manuel’s dedication to Tikkun Olam wasn’t just something he practiced himself. He wanted others to learn the power of giving. Through the foundation, in partnership with Northern Kentucky University, he and his family created the first university-based student philanthropy program that has now become a national model. He and Rhoda were also dedicated to The Mayerson High School Service Learning Program which supports high schools to develop and maintain programs in which hundreds of students learn to serve others every year.
Both Manuel and Rhoda were moved by art. They always wanted others to be able to experience the joy and inspiration they felt when in the presence of great art. The foundation, as well as Manuel and Rhoda individually, supported almost all of the local arts organizations. Most significantly, the foundation participated in the effort to create the New School for the Creative and Performing Arts in Over-the-Rhine as well as creating a fund for Artistic Excellence to support high quality programming in the school.
Manuel and the foundation also broke new ground in creating the VIA Institute on Character which is a world leader in the scientific study of what’s best in human beings and in how to develop these best qualities, and the foundation supports the civil and human rights of people with disabilities—supporting the Disabilities Rights, Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), a pioneer in the disability civil rights movement—and having created Kesher and the Inclusion Network in Cincinnati to improve quality of life for people with disabilities.
Known for giving of his time as well as his financial resources, Manuel was active in numerous organizations over many decades, serving on a variety of boards, such as Adath Israel Congregation, The Contemporary Arts Center, The National Foundation for Jewish Culture, Anti Defamation League, The Cincinnati Zoo, National Conference for Community and Justice (now Bridges), The Cincinnati Art Museum, The Freestore / Foodbank, and The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and the Hebrew Free Loan.
“Even though Dad worked really hard, he had a lot of balance in his life. He was a competitive person who loved playing golf, and took to the tennis court when he could. He also really appreciated the wonder of nature,” said Neal. “He and my mother enjoyed an active social life. They went out with friends, to parties, to the symphony, opera, theater and the ballet. And they shared their hobby of appreciating and purchasing art and producing Broadway plays.”
However, above all of his achievements in the community, Manuel valued family most deeply. As the father of Frederic (wife Dawna), Arlene (husband Allan), Neal (wife, Donna), and the grandfather of Amanda, Adam and Emma, he felt a deep and abiding pride in who they were and what it meant to be a Mayerson. He lived his life in honor of that family name and tradition.
His funeral took place at Adath Israel Congregation and was attended by hundreds of people from Greater Cincinnati and across the country. The family has requested that contributions in honor of Manuel be made to the Mayerson JCC.