On this day in 1990, billionaire philanthropist Harry Weinberg died at the age of 82 in Honolulu due to complications from multiple myeloma. After his death, the vast wealth he amassed during his life transferred to The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, named after he and his wife Jeanette, who died a year earlier at the age of 80.
Weinberg was born in Europe and moved to Maryland with his family in 1911 at the age of three. One of his earliest business ventures was selling tiny American flags to celebrate the end of World War I as a 10-year-old. Despite dropping out of elementary school, he was successful from early on, buying businesses and real estate and selling them for profit. On the eve of World War II, he used his personal stocks in various companies to help his wife’s family flee from Germany, thus marking the incipience of his charitable conscience.
He built a transportation/real estate empire in Pennsylvania and Texas, which ultimately led him to Hawaii in the 1950s to repeat the process. He quickly became the single largest shareholder of the Honolulu Rapid Transit (HRT) company — which would later become TheBus — earning him few friends but plenty of influence in local business. His takeover of HRT was tumultuous and met with resistance from workers and board members alike. After taking control of HRT, he battled Teamsters, the Public Utilities Commission, and the city of Honolulu, eventually forcing the government to buy him out at a profit. While this was happening, Weinberg was independently purchasing real estate across the islands, making him one of the largest private landowners in the state at the time.
Although he had many fierce opponents during his life, his legacy after his death has been rehabilitated through his foundation’s charitable giving — not unlike John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie. At the time of his passing, he directed that no money be given to causes favored by the upper class, and instead focused on organizations benefiting the poor. Now, more than 180 buildings in Hawaii bear the Weinberg name, which is now associated more with health and human services for the impoverished, children and elderly than with the ruthless business practices that made him a quintessential rags-to-riches story of American success.
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