Beloved philanthropist dies at age 100.
Betty Schoenbaum turned philanthropy into a lifestyle, one she committed to until her very last moments. The beloved Sarasota philanthropist died on Tuesday, July 31 surrounded by family. She was two months from her 101st birthday.
Schoenbaum and her husband, Alex, gave millions of dollars for education and social services in Sarasota. She continued to live by her mantra, “the joy of living is the joy of giving,” after he died in 1996. Her giving spirit had an effect on countless lives, not just in Sarasota, but around the country and the world.
“I can’t think of anyone who has done as much as she has,” said Phil King, a close friend for nearly two decades and former executive director of the Glasser Schoenbaum Human Services Center.
Schoenbaum was born in Dayton, Ohio to Sarah and Sam Frank, on Sept. 27, 1917. A love of giving was instilled in her at an early age. As a young girl, she asked her mother to donate her clothes to girls in need.
“I think I always liked giving — even when I couldn’t give money, I gave affection to people that I felt needed it,” she told the Observer in 2017. “When a lot of people wouldn’t talk to a girl at school, I’d make a friend of her.”
Schoenbaum attended college at Ohio State University and met her future husband, Alex, on her first day. Their meeting would be the start of a philanthropic partnership. They married after graduation and lived in a $40-a-month efficiency apartment in Columbus, Ohio.
Betty Schoenbaum said they pledged $100 to the United Jewish Appeal during this period, even though it was far more than they could afford. After World War II, Alex Schoenbaum started a drive-through hamburger stand near a bowling alley in Charleston, W. Va., that grew into the restaurant chain, Shoney’s.
In 1974, the couple moved to Sarasota with their youngest daughter, Emily, who said her mother always put the family first. Emily Schoenbaum said one of her fondest memories was lying in bed with her mother eating pretzels with Muenster cheese while watching “Jeopardy!”
“She was brilliant,” Emily Schoenbaum said. “We would have been star contestants on that show.” She also recalled her mother doing crossword puzzles every morning, timing how long it took her to do each one.
If family came first, then philanthropy was a close second for Betty Schoenbaum.
Through her husband’s involvement with the Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee she was introduced to her favorite organization, Jewish Family and Children’s Service of the Suncoast.
“Whenever I saw her, I thanked her for her generosity and she would be so humble and say, ‘You’re the one who does the work, I should be thanking you,’” said Rose Chapman, former executive director of JFCS of the Suncoast. “She was so humble and wanted other people to take the recognition.”
Other than JFCS, she has supported dozens of Sarasota nonprofits, citing Boys and Girls Clubs of Sarasota County, Women’s Resource Center and All Faiths Food Bank as some of the organizations she’s most proud to support. The Schoenbaum name can be found on buildings throughout the city, including the Glasser Schoenbaum Human Services Center, a campus home to more than 17 health and human services agencies.
She was especially passionate about education.
“Betty believed that the way out of poverty in life is through education,” said Nelle Miller who served on numerous philanthropic boards with Schoenbaum. “She especially wanted to help young women and empower them through education in order prepare the next generation with success.”
In 2010, Miller accompanied Schoenbaum to the opening of The Alex and Betty Schoenbaum Kiryat Yam Educational Campus in Kiryat Yam, Israel, a facility that includes a high school made up of mostly Jewish Ethiopian and Russian immigrants who had fled persecution. Schoenbaum donated more than $5 million to the campus.
“It was the most amazing experience to be there with her and witness her realize the magnitude of her mission,” Miller said. “This school was going to impact thousands of generations to come.”
Miller said the school was one of the worst in the country before it was renovated, but it is now one of the top performing schools in Israel.
“Her dream was that maybe one day one of the Ethiopian or Russian refugees would make it to the Olympics and wave the Israeli flag,” Miller said. “Judaism was really important to her.”
Schoenbaum also influenced other philanthropists in the community, encouraging people to give while their still alive so they could witness the difference their donations made.
Throughout the Sarasota community, she was known for her warmth, rapt attention and searing empathy.
“She had a way of focusing on you that made you feel like you were the only important thing in the entire world to her, and she did that to both her friends, family and complete strangers,” Miller said.
Schoenbaum was always ready to give one of her famous hugs. On her 100th birthday, the city of Sarasota declared Sept. 27 Heart-to-Heart Hug Day.
“Embracing heart-to-heart meant that you lived longer because it brought warmth and love to your life, and that’s why I think she did live so long,” Chapman said.
To friends and family, she was known for her honesty and calm, but biting wit. Her sense of humor was loved by many.
“She always said what was on her mind and wasn't shy about it,” Chapman said. “She was honest, and at times her honesty was funny and she just had a way of saying things that were delightful.”
As she once said, “I believe in the beauty of this world. If we didn’t have war and hatred in this world, we would be living in heaven.”
A funeral for Schoenbaum is being planned for Friday, Aug. 3 at the B’nai Jacob Synagogue in Charleston, W.Va., and a celebration of life is expected in Sarasota at a date to be announced.
Managing Editor of Arts & Entertainment Niki Kottmann contributed to this report.