The celebrated Sarasota philanthropist died after a brief illness Thursday. She was 91.
Gerri Aaron was not a fan of spending money.
Although she was a woman with great wealth, she was always frugal, letting common sense prevail over desire in her purchases.
In fact, friends say one of her favorite places to shop for her characteristically colorful outfits was at thrift stores.
But Aaron’s legacy is one of giving.
Aaron, whose late husband, Daniel, one of the co-founders of Comcast, had nearly unlimited resources. But rather than spend money on herself, she preferred to give it away.
Aaron, a celebrated philanthropist in Sarasota and her native Philadelphia, died Thursday. She was 91.
Aaron’s impact in the community is so widespread, it would be harder to find organizations that didn’t benefit from her generosity than those that did. Children First, Neuro Challenge Foundation for Parkinson’s, Sarasota Orchestra, JFCS of the Suncoast, The Glasser/Schoenbaum Human Services Center, Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, Season of Sharing, American Jewish Committee West Coast Florida and the Tree Foundation — the list of her involvement goes on and on.
Yet her mission was simple. She loved kids, she loved music and, most of all, she loved people.
“She had such a great deal of compassion for people,” said Jo Rutstein, a longtime friend. “Especially those who were struggling or in need. She would never think of putting anyone down or think she was better because she had something they didn’t.”
There was no mistaking Aaron when she was present in a room. With her wardrobe of bright colors and her smart hexagon-lens spectacles, reflective of her fun personality and zest for life, Aaron had a gift for addressing everyone with a warm smile.
“You never walked up to Gerri without being greeted with a smile,” said Maggie Hutter, another longtime friend. “And she would always take the time to listen to you. She was open to all, always interested in listening and learning.”
Learning was a passion for Aaron. An avid reader, she was interested in what was going on in the world and how she could make a difference.
In her younger years in Philadelphia, she was a fan of Cesar Chavez and marched to persuade grocers to help the grape workers. Shortly after she moved to Florida, she took the same passion to the streets of Sarasota to protest the removal of funding for arts education in the schools. She joined the Arts Council to ensure arts education would remain funded, and in 2006, she became a founding member of the Arts Leadership Circle for the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, to ensure the arts remain strong in the community.
Her support of education dovetailed with her passion for the arts, which she supported in a multitude of ways.
“She supported everything: the youth orchestra, the Sarasota Music Festival. It wasn't just limited to one thing,” said Sarasota Orchestra President and CEO Joe McKenna. “She loved this organization. She always marveled at how far our musicians have come and how they continued to still grow and develop. That excited her — whether it was when the orchestra got better or when the students were discovering levels of success.”
Many organizations also benefited from Aaron’s knack for finding a vision and helping guide it to fruition.
“She was a big-picture kind of supporter, but if there was a small need, you could certainly go to her. She was about expansion and opportunity,” said Barbara Zdravecky, former CEO of Sarasota's Planned Parenthood. “She was active as a leader and in decision-making.”
Carol Butera, president and CEO of the Selby Foundation, agreed. “She was a donor you had to keep in the loop,’’ she said. “ "This is where we are, this is what we’re doing, this is what’s happening.’ To remain engaged with her, you had to engage with her.”
With a personality that displayed strength and smarts, Aaron didn’t shy away from tackling tough subjects — whether they were popular or not.
Zdravecky remembers when Aaron told a personal story at the organization’s 20th anniversary celebration.
“She was seeking diaphragm for birth control as a young mother who had a lot of kids,” Zdravecky said. “She and her husband were poor, and she had to go to her doctor and ask for birth control to control the number of pregnancies. She wanted people to know it was OK to talk about it.”
As someone so involved in so many organizations, Aaron remained open to new ideas and opportunities. She loved to converse and talk about them with anyone who would engage, and enjoyed being out socially to have those conversations and form new relationships in the community.
“She had a viewpoint, but it was always well-balanced,” longtime friend Stan Rutstein said. “Her greatest strength was her common sense, but she was also a great listener. She had a great ability to focus on the subject and really get to the heart of the issue … She was very communicative, she just loved to be a part of things.”
And throughout all her good fortune, Aaron remained true her middle-class roots and values.
Marvin Albert was Aaron’s companion for nearly 11 years after her husband died in 2003.
“We liked the same things, the same music, the same type of shows, we had so much in common,” Albert said. “She was just a very giving person, very warm, so out there. She obviously had a lot of money, but she did not live like she had a lot of money. She gave a lot away and that was her pleasure, that was her pleasure to help other people — both individually and by giving to communities.”
Marvin said one of her favorite things was buy-one, get-one deals. And if the price on tomatoes at the supermarket was too high, she wouldn’t buy them, waiting for a future lower price.
Jo Rutstein remembers a time going with Aaron and a friend to help her pick out a new car. “She was going to get a regular little car, but we went with her and talked her into buying a convertible — a blue convertible Mercedes,” Rutstein recalls. “Afterward, all Gerri could say was, ‘I can’t believe you talked me into buying this car!’
“She had all the money in the world, but she didn’t want to spend it.” Jo Rutstein said.
Wealth was not a thought for the Aarons in their early years.
Gerri Aaron (born Geraldine Stone) met her husband, Daniel Aaron, at Temple University. In a video last year for the Neuro Challenge, Gerri said she “was a popular young woman with lots of boyfriends, but nobody who matched his brilliance and his wit.”
Although her parents were unhappy she was marrying “a poor, penniless foreigner,” she said they finally agreed because she knew his future was going to be bright.
Gerri Aaron started out working as an attendance officer, going into the poor neighborhoods of Philadelphia to persuade parents to keep their children in school.
About five years later, the Aarons started their family. With five kids, times were not easy.
“We were really poor,” Gerri Aaron said in the video. “We did things with the family that were fun, but without spending any money on it.”
Yet both had strong values of family and humanity. Daniel Aaron was a refugee of Nazi Germany. Gerri Aaron grew up in a family that stressed the value of giving back and helping those less fortunate.
So, once Daniel Aaron found success with what became Comcast, Gerri Aaron told him it was time to give back, which they began doing in Philadelphia in a multitude of ways.
The couple became familiar with the Sarasota while visiting on business. When the company sought to expand in the market, Stan Rutstein said Daniel Aaron went looking for a spot to build an office. He found it on the corner of Fruitville Road and Honore Avenue, which at the time was a pig farm.
“That deal became the glue that tied them to the community even tighter,” Stan Rutstein said.
The Aarons decided from their visits that this was where they wanted to retire.
In 1991, the Aarons moved first to Longboat Key, then to downtown Sarasota to make caring for when Daniel Aaron easier when his Parkinson’s disease progressed.
For each cause to which Aaron has contributed, there has been a catalyst. Her experiences during her early career inspired her to get involved in education, her husband’s illness led to a devotion to help those with Parkinson’s and their caregivers and it was her love of music led her to work to further the Sarasota Orchestra.
Aaron was a longtime subscriber and patron of the orchestra, and has served on the board for about seven years.
“Gerri was one of those people who just really understood how important the arts were to a well-rounded person,” McKenna said. “She understood the arts opened up one’s mind and one’s spirit. She was really big on that, seeing people develop and grow and discover.”
Those who knew Aaron talk about her warmth and humanity, her kindness and her wit, her deep desire to help others and make the world a better place. Although she gave a lot, Aaron’s work was not about money. It was about listening. It was about leading. And it was about loving.
“Gerri was a kind woman. It was never about her, it was always about what she could do for an organization or for a cause,” said Robyn Faucy, executive director of Neuro Challenge. “When you know her life story, because she didn’t always have it easy, when you know what she came from and see the woman she was and what she gave, that is something that inspires me to want to be the best person I can because she embodied that.”
McKenna agrees: “If you could only be with one other person, she’d be the kind of person you’d pick.”