Benjamin Strauss; led Pep Boys

Posted: October 25, 2007

Benjamin Strauss, 71, the dashingly handsome scion and chairman of the Philadelphia-based Pep Boys auto-parts firm, known coast to coast for its timeless caricatures of Manny, Moe and Jack, died of prostate cancer Sunday at home in Haverford.

The son of Maurice "Moe" Strauss, the ringleader of the original trio, Mr. Strauss joined Pep Boys in 1964 after practicing law in California. He was named president in 1975 and was chairman from 1978 until retiring in 1992.

Mr. Strauss was not only successful in business, but he also was passionate about his family, the outdoors, philanthropy, the arts, and sports, particularly the Philadelphia Eagles.

"Ben had tremendous business acumen. He was not arrogant. He listened to everyone before he made a decision," said his friend Don Callaghan, who is retired from Goldman Sachs. "The company boomed under his leadership. Everybody wanted to be on his team."

"Ben was a cultured, elegant man who also loved the outdoors. He was as comfortable at the orchestra as during a rugged Outward Bound trip. He relished pitching a tent in the rain and digging a latrine," Callaghan said.

"In 1997, on a trip to Alaska with the Sierra Club, Ben was dropped from a small plane in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and waited five days to see the caribou migrate," he said. "He was thrilled when he saw 95,000 caribou."

Mr. Strauss led the second generation of Pep Boys on the road to success, as the company grew dramatically during his tenure. In 1986, Pep Boys owned 190 stores, which made it the second-largest auto-parts chain in the country.

But work did not dominate Mr. Strauss' life. His mother died when he was 13, and he and his family moved from Merion to Los Angeles, where Pep Boys opened a store on the West Coast. Mr. Strauss graduated from Beverly Hills High School. He earned a bachelor's degree in 1958 and a law degree in 1961 from the University of California, Los Angeles, and practiced law with Loeb & Loeb.

In 1964, he moved to Gladwyne and joined the family business, when Pep Boys had only 47 stores in this region.

He married Bonnie Hudson in the early 1960s, and they had a daughter, Victoria Strauss Kennedy, and a son, Evan, before the marriage ended in the early 1980s.

"He was a real dad. He was unassuming and always gave us wise counsel," said his daughter, who married Maxwell Taylor Kennedy, son of Robert F. Kennedy, in 1990.

"Ben was like a saint in his remarkable curiosity and energy, which led him to new adventures and relationships throughout his life," Robert Kennedy Jr. said. "He was universally beloved."

Mr. Strauss was deeply committed to Philadelphia. He founded the Strauss Foundation in 1970, which supports education, science and medicine. He also supported the Outward Bound program for underprivileged youth.

In 1996, Mr. Strauss married Iliana Kloesmeyer, and the couple had a daughter, Spencer. One month ago, he took her on a father-daughter camping trip in the Poconos.

Mr. Strauss was a huge Eagles fan.

"Ben will always be remembered for his pioneering spirit, his humanity, his wit, and his passion for his hometown team," said Christina Lurie, wife of Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie.

"We were like family. We spent holidays and vacations together," she said. "About two years ago, we were in Colorado. I did not know he could ski, but I asked him if he would like to ski with me - and I am a good skier. The next thing I knew, he came racing down the mountain. He was showing off, but in a nice way. It cracked me up."

Mr. Strauss was known for his sense of humor.

"When we were young, Ben got a beautiful cat and named it Baseball," said his sister, Sandy Strauss. "When asked why the name, he said to teach him humility."

Mr. Strauss was a founding member of the Young Presidents Organization and served on the boards of the Pennsylvania Ballet, the Mann Center, National Museum of American Jewish History, Friends of Rittenhouse Square, and other organizations. He also was a founding contributor to the Kimmel Center.

"My father felt comforted that many friends were spared the anxiety of knowing of his private battle with cancer for the last four years," his daughter Victoria said.

In addition to his wife, son, daughters and sister, Mr. Strauss is survived by five grandchildren, a brother, and his former wife.

Services are private.

Memorial donations may be made to the Eagles Youth Partnership, NovaCare Complex, 1 NovaCare Way, Philadelphia 19145.

Contact staff writer Gayle Ronan Sims at 215-854-4185 or gsims@phillynews.com.

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