The Philanthropy of Ernie Kretzmer
It’s easy to see the biggest influence in local arts activist and philanthropist Ernie Kretzmer’s life. The moment I sat down with him at the Lido Key home he built when he came to Sarasota in 1989, he immediately took out a Jewish Leader newspaper from February 14, 1957. “There,” he said, pointing at the black-and-white photo of an elegant woman beneath the headline Women’s All-Out Campaign Imperative. “That’s my mother.”
It’s from his parents that Ernie’s deep love of music emerged. “They played classical musical all the time,” he said. His father was a better-than-average pianist and violinist. And his mother? He admits that she was quite literally tone-deaf, but she still learned how to play piano well enough to accompany her husband’s violin playing. “She was a big supporter of music and education,” he says. “Both were causes she championed.” So much so, in fact, that she worked tirelessly to get her son into a distant polytechnic school and receive a scholarship so they could afford it.
After leaving his homeland of Germany, Ernie eventually found himself working as a lab assistant at MIT. While there, a mentor connected him with an inventor who had a design problem that was right up Ernie’s alley. “I didn’t know beans about what to charge,” he said, but the inventor chose to give him a percentage of sales in addition to an up-front fee. This led to Ernie tackling another two dozen design challenges for significant remuneration and a 35-year career at Bell Labs. After some wise investments, he found himself in a position where he could afford to give back. More on that in a bit.
Ernie brought his beloved mother to Florida soon after he moved here. When she passed away, he and his sister wanted to do something to honor her. His sister chose to make a donation at Brandeis University (where their mother worked as a librarian). Ernie donated to the Sarasota Orchestra and in return, got her name on a brick there. Soon after, he decided to help in a bigger way. The conductor was ready to retire but didn’t have a pension, though she did have a storied, top-notch violin. Ernie bought it and donated it back to the group. And from there, he kept on finding ways to give back.
While the list of causes and organizations is extensive — he said “well over 60” different ones — he has his favorites. The Sarasota Ballet, Sarasota Orchestra, Sarasota Opera, and Florida Studio Theatre top his list, and all have received noteworthy support from him. For instance, when the Opera was going through renovations, he paid to have the orchestra pit redone. His late wife, Alisa, loved the ballet, so he donated a new two-story rehearsal studio in her name. And most recently, Ernie donated $500,000 toward the construction of Florida Studio Theatre’s Rosemary Artist Housing Project, which will create 20 bedrooms in five new townhouses that can be used to house artists and visitors.
What Ernie likes most about partnering with Gulf Coast Community Foundation on his philanthropy projects is that they often give to what he gives to. He explains, “Through Gulf Coast, I’m able to magnify my efforts. I’ve been taking advantage of that leverage in spades.” Plus, he notes, they’re terrific, good people who care about the things he cares about, too.
Dorathea Sandland, an RN who is Ernie’s 7-day-a-week personal caregiver and personal assistant, sits in on every meeting he has. She added, “He’s an inspiration to others. They want to follow his example. I even see people coming up to him on the street to say, “Thank you, Mr. Kretzmer.” She supports him in her own way by keeping him healthy and active. Though he still drives at 91, they regularly go biking together. “And he’s very health conscious,” she explained. “He eats fish most days of the week. Plus he even makes sure I watch myself and my own health. He’s a wonderful person.”
Dorathea even joked about the rigorous schedule the two of them keep. “This Sunday alone,” she reported with a laugh, “we have three separate events to attend. He’s always ready to go, but sometimes I have a hard time keeping up with him!”
Whether it’s paying for a much-needed roundabout (such as the one he paid to be put in at the corner of Orange Avenue and Ringling Boulevard) or supporting schools in Israel, Ernie is always looking to make a difference. If he sees a problem — or an opportunity — he takes it up, just like how he had the roof fixed at the Senior Friendship Center or how he gives to the Red Cross after natural disasters.
“He’s always willing to help,” added Dorathea. “That’s the most inspirational thing to me. He simply feels he should do it. That makes me so proud of him.”
For more information on Gulf Coast Community Foundation, visit gulfcoastcf.org or call 941.486.4600.