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November 2014

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The magic of the holiday season is upon us. From giving the gift of life, to buying that perfect gift or attending events that bring a smile to the faces of those young and old, it all begins in the November issue of SCENE.

A Pillar of Philanthropy: Harold Ronson Print E-mail

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 But with an outdated factory and increasing pressure from international competition, the com­pany soon faced bankruptcy.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 the company.

“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.

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