By Jake Hartvigsen
Harold Ronson knows a thing or two about overcoming adversity.
As the youngest of four siblings growing up in Brooklyn during the Great
Depression, he lost his mother when he was just 14 years old. She was “a victim
of poverty,” he says, recalling his family’s daily struggles to make ends meet.
Then, after joining the U.S. Navy in 1944, he endured fierce campaigns at Iwo
Jima, Okinawa and the Philippines during World War II, barely escaping each
battle while friends and fellow soldiers fell around him.
More challenges followed, including the loss of his wife,
Kay, in 2012 to Alzheimer’s disease. Yet, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico in his
luxurious seventh floor condominium on Longboat Key, what Ronson recalls most
are the people he met along the way who gave him a chance to succeed when life
placed obstacles in his way. It is the lessons he learned from those
experiences that have shaped his commitment to philanthropy ever since.
“When I came back from the service, I found a job in a textile
factory making $47 per week,” he says. “Then one day the foreman pulled me
aside, and said ‘What are you doing here? You can do so much more with your
life.’ He told me about the G.I. Bill, and I enrolled at Philadelphia
University (then known as Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science). That
advice changed my life.”
Upon graduation, Ronson got a job as a plant chemist and engineer
at W. Lowenthal & Co., a wool manufacturer in upstate New York established
in the 1880s. But with an outdated factory and increasing pressure from
international competition, the company soon faced bankruptcy. Again encouraged
by co-workers and associates who recognized his business talents, Ronson purchased
the company and moved it to South Carolina where he built a state-of-the-art
manufacturing facility and returned the company to prosperity. He eventually
sold Lowenthal to HanesBrands in the late 1980s, after nearly 38 years with
“Life has been good to me,” he says. “Part of that was hard
work, but part was just being lucky enough to have good people in my life when
I needed them. Their generosity, as well as the lessons I learned from some
tough experiences, made me determined to give back in any way I could.”
And has he ever given back. For his lifetime achievements
and his dedication to helping others, Ronson was recently named a Doctor of
Philanthropy by Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation. He is also a longtime
supporter of Weill Medical College at Cornell University, the Hospital for
Special Surgery in New York, and the National Alzheimer’s Association. Locally,
he has served on the boards of Friendship Centers, Sarasota Opera, and a number
of other nonprofits.
But one organization that remains closest to his heart is
Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation. “My wife, Kay, was a professor of
nursing, so healthcare and education always played a special role in our
lives,” says Ronson, whose two daughters chose careers in medicine as well.
“When Kay was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2000, those causes became even
more important to me.”
Impressed by the quality of care Kay received during her battle
with Alzheimer’s and determined to help other individuals and families facing
similar struggles, Ronson didn’t hesitate when Sarasota Memorial Healthcare
Foundation contacted him seeking support to help build the hospital’s new
Courtyard Tower. Thanks to his donations and thousands of others, the new $168
million tower opened last year, providing state-of-the-art equipment and
facilities to meet our area’s evolving health care needs. In recognition of
Ronson’s generosity, the hospital named a wing in the new tower in Kay’s honor
and recently honored Harold as one of its Pillars of Philanthropy.
“Our generation has been called ‘The Greatest Generation’ because
we always sought to make the world a better place,” Ronson says, reflecting on
a lifetime of experiences, success and, at times, sadness. “But you can only do
that by sharing, and when you do, it’s a great feeling.”
For information on Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation,
visit smhf.org or call (941) 917-1286.