Joseph Zilber enjoyed giving back to Milwaukee

Joseph Zilber never forgot where he came from. Even after 65 years of business success and millions of dollars, he knew it all began on the corner of 10th and Meinecke, in a small corner grocery store owned by his Russian-immigrant parents.

He never forgot his hometown, his alma mater or the other institutions important to the community and he was determined to share his wealth with Milwaukee to transform the landscape and educational opportunities of Milwaukee.

And while many people said thank you to Zilber when he presented donations to their organizations, we should all take a moment to thank him collectively for his philanthropy and vision.

Zilber passed away Friday morning at the VNA Zilber Hospice Center in Wauwatosa. But his death won’t stop what he saw for Milwaukee.

Pass through the Marquette Interchange and you’ll see the new law school being built, due in part to the $30 million donated by Zilber in 2007 for the building and scholarships. In addition, ride down Wisconsin Ave. through the campus and see the aesthetic changes he funded, turning Marquette University into a cohesive urban campus.

Travel north on Interstate 43 and you’ll see The Brewery, the Zilber Foundation’s latest project to revitalize an area of the community that was abandoned and forgotten. His vision for the former Pabst Brewery complex includes residential and commercial developments, along with space forUWM’s School of Public Health.

“There is no greater need in the city of Milwaukee than to improve the health of our citizens, both young and old,” Zilber said in 2007 when he made a $10 million donation for the development of the school.

Visit 12th and Lloyd where the Joseph J. Zilber Boys and Girls Club at Lloyd Street School benefits from a generous gift from Zilber. His contribution helps children in the same neighborhood where he grew up, providing activities, an arts specialist, physical education instruction and reading programs. Zilber said that he would do anything for the kids near his childhood home.

That determination to improve the neighborhood of his youth and the rest of Milwaukee led to the creation of the Zilber Neighborhood Initiative in 2008, which will provide funds for ten low-income Milwaukee neighborhoods to revitalize and connect all citizens to social and economic opportunity. His home neighborhood Lindsay Heights, along with Clark Square on the near south side, are the first two areas to benefit from his gift.

“These funds alone, $50 million, cannot do the job, and I know that,” he said, hoping his money would be leveraged into $200 million through other donors, businesses and foundations matching dollars. “But with everybody in the city coming along and doing it and providing funds, it will work.”

Zilber’s goals for the Neighborhood Initiative were to reverse the school dropout rate, improve education, reduce family violence and assist those with substance abuse.

“We have so much going for us, but we have many needs. We must look outside government to fund those pressing needs. There are a great many individuals and foundations prepared to invest resources to strengthen our community. For months I have worked behind the scenes with these entities. My mission is to mobilize them with good ideas, strong proposals and the promise that our shared commitment to our great city will yield positive results. In the coming weeks we can expect announcements on significant private investments in Milwaukee.”

While Zilber advocated for non-government solutions to Milwaukee’s problems, some of the area’s biggest names are praising Zilber’s work and mourned his passing.

“Today is a sad day in the city of Milwaukee,” Mayor Tom Barrett said in a statement. “With the passing of Joe Zilber, we have lost one of our finest champions, a kind and generous man and a longtime friend. Milwaukeeans of all ages have been and will continue to be beneficiaries of his spirited generosity, his hopeful vision and his strength and will to make life better for so many.”

His close friend, Marquette University President Father Robert Wild said, “We will all mourn his passing, even as we celebrate the remarkable gift of his life. Joe Zilber made an immeasurable difference in the lives of Milwaukee’s citizens and demonstrated again and again, in words and deeds, his steadfast commitment to the welfare of this community.”

It was that difference and commitment that made Zilber the man he was and allowed him to share himself with his community. For that we say thank you, Joe.

Funeral services will be held at Marquette University’s Alumni Memorial Union, March 23 at 10 a.m.

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