Remembering Carl Shapiro

In life, Carl J. Shapiro found his strength in his love for family and in his passion for business, and with his success, he embraced a responsibility and a desire to help others less fortunate.

He passed away at his Boston home on Sunday, March 7, at the age of 108.

He leaves a legacy that underscores his lifelong commitment to civic, educational, cultural and health care institutions in the communities of Boston, Massachusetts and Palm Beach, Florida where he resided.

Mr. Shapiro was born in Boston, MA on February 15, 1913. He was the only son and the second of three children of Annie Skurnick and Aaron Shapiro, and devoted brother to the late Selma Shapiro and the late Eileen Kommit. His story mirrors the pages of a Horatio Alger novel. Mr. Shapiro left Boston University during the Depression to work for his father in the coat manufacturing business in Boston, MA.In 1939, Carl transformed it into the women’s dress company known as Kay Windsor (The Look You Love).

The years leading up to and including World War II proved difficult for Mr. Shapiro’s business because fabric was in short supply due to the needs of the country to manufacture uniforms and other war-related items. This period speaks to Mr. Shapiro's resilience. With his captivating sense of humor and the capacity to approach life with a “glass half full” philosophy, he met life’s challenges with determination, optimism and infinite hard work. He nurtured the business and after the war, success returned as he expanded his manufacturing efforts into the cotton and wool knit arenas. He became known as ‘the Cotton King’ for bringing inexpensive cotton dresses into every woman’s closet. In 1971, at the age of 58, he sold Kay Windsor to the Vanity Fair Corporation. He stayed with VFC for five more years.

Business was his pleasure, but his family was his love and always came first. Carl met his wife Ruth Gordon on a blind date in Nantasket Beach, MA. He convinced her to cancel plans with a rival beau, and married her in 1939. They were married for 73 years until she passed away in 2012 at the age of 95. They had three daughters: the late Rhonda (Zinner), Ellen (Jaffe) and Linda (Waintrup).

He brought the lessons he learned at work home to his family. He shared with his daughters the importance of education, hard work and the ability to distinguish what he referred to as “The majors from the minors” and told them that most of life’s challenges fall in the latter category. Family, for Carl, was the cornerstone of his life. He wanted to be an example for his daughters and demonstrated by calling his parents every night, visiting weekly with his family in tow, attending to their financial, emotional and health–related needs.

He enjoyed teaching his daughters his values and emphasized the importance of helping others; what he had earned in business, he believed, should be shared to help those in need. When Mr. Shapiro stepped aside from his day to day business, he turned his attention to two of his favorite projects: The Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation and his investment strategy.

Mr. Shapiro was a savvy investor in the traditional aspects of the market, in stocks, bonds and commodities. He achieved a great deal of success. But, it was the investment world that decades later, would open a heartbreaking chapter in his life.

Mr. Shapiro first met Bernard Madoff in the 1960’s. Mr. Shapiro believed in entrepreneurship and wanted to help young Madoff start his investment business and watched as it flourished through the years. Carl was stunned, along with the rest of the world, when he first heard the news in December of 2008, about Mr. Madoff’s illegal activities.

Mr. Madoff had been a friend through the years and this admission was devastating to Mr. Shapiro. However, even in the wake of the financial loss due to the Madoff scandal, Mr. Shapiro insisted that the Shapiro Family Foundation continue with its mission of supporting organizations in need.

Mr. and Mrs. Shapiro started their Family Foundation in 1961. In the early years, the groups that received donations were ones with whom they felt a close connection and had developed personal relationships. One of the first major gifts went to Brandeis University, because of their close ties to the school. Similar relationships inspired giving to most of Boston’s major medical institutions, the Children’s Museum of Boston, The U.S Holocaust Museum, Hebrew Senior Life and several cultural and health organizations in Palm Beach, The Kravis Center and The Norton Museum. Mrs. Shapiro’s long-standing love of music and art provided the impetus for early gifts to the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Museum of Fine Arts.

Today, the Foundation rests in the hands of the next generation of Shapiros. Where once Mr. and Mrs. Shapiro sat around the kitchen table to decide where they would like their donations to go, now the family considers a more strategic approach in determining how best to allocate existing funds. While Carl particularly enjoyed working on large capital grants, he was also committed to supporting a wide range of community-based non-profits. In the past ten years, the Foundation has made about $6.4 million in grants to over 80 community-based organizations in such areas as disability inclusion, youth arts and empowerment.

Through the years Carl was a hands-on partner with all the organizations he supported, and he never hesitated to offer his opinion which was accompanied by his exceptionally high standards. Carl was known for poring over architectural plans, participating in many ‘hard-hat’ visits, consulting with the groups who would occupy a building, and making innumerable suggestions to improve the project. He would say that no detail is insignificant, from the size of the patient rooms to the art on the walls, which he believed strongly was good for patient morale.

His family says it was never just the building that interested him; instead it was the way a structure could further enhance the mission of an organization. When Mr. Shapiro decided to fund the Science Center at Brandeis, he did so because he believed the only way to attract and retain top scientists and students was to help provide the most state-of-the-art facility.

His late daughter, Ronny, once asked him what he thought about his name prominently displayed on several public buildings in Boston. Mr. Shapiro replied, “It’s not for me; it’s for the family. Years from now when mother and I are not here, I want our grandchildren and future generations of our family to have a sense of pride in knowing that we cared about our community and helped where we could.”

While Mr. Shapiro may be known for supporting several large brick and mortar projects, he also held a steadfast commitment to and felt an affinity with those who struggle with a disability. While he took interest in all the Foundation's initiatives, the ones that address the various technological and educational needs of the disabled held a special place for him. He wanted to support those groups that struggled to have a voice in the world and the people he feared would fall through the cracks.

While a generous philanthropist at his core, his heart belonged to his family. He was a beloved husband and cherished father, grandfather to seven, great-grandfather to ten and trusted friend. His life is a testament to the philosophy that family comes first. His children and grandchildren would call or arrive on his doorstep from all over the world to consult him, report good news or bad and ask advice.

He was a man who was known for giving so much to so many and for a generosity that knew few bounds. He also had an endless curiosity about others. Family members relish in telling stories about going to dinner and by the end of the meal, Mr. Shapiro would know the life history and future plans of the restaurant staff.

Carl was a champion of the underdog. He cared for the person who overcame adversity; the person who understood life’s struggles and who could persevere despite great odds. His late daughter, Ronny, recalled her father through words from the Book of Luke “Those to whom much is given, much is expected”. He lived his life according to that mandate and taught his family to do the same. Ronny always said “My sisters and I are infinitely proud to be his daughters.”

He is survived by his daughters Ellen S Jaffe (Robert) of Palm Beach, Linda S Waintrup (Daniel) of Brookline; his-son in-law Michael Zinner; his grandchildren Jennifer Herman (Mark), Jonathan Segal, Steven Jaffe (Jenna), Michael Jaffe, Andrew Jaffe (Allyson), Samantha Hanman(Jonathan), Kimberly Strauss; and his great-grandchildren Ashley, Zachary, Alexandra Herman; Rebekah, Oliver, Bowie, Seneca, Archer Jaffe; Penelope and Eloise Hanman.

March 2021

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