At home and abroad, eager to help

Gerry and David Pincus in their Wynnewood home, a veritable museum of artwork they've collected during their 48 years together. In recent years, Pincus has been selling some of his major pieces to fund his charitable works, which now tend to lie closer to home than his earlier worldwide efforts.
Gerry and David Pincus in their Wynnewood home, a veritable museum of artwork they've collected during their 48 years together. In recent years, Pincus has been selling some of his major pieces to fund his charitable works, which now tend to lie closer to home than his earlier worldwide efforts.

David N. Pincus travels the world, taking an ebullient spirit and a generous heart to the youngest in need.

Posted: July 26, 2009

One in an occasional series of portraits of people who distinguish our region, for the nation and the world.

Elie Wiesel has traveled all over the world with David N. Pincus, a retired Philadelphia clothing manufacturer. They've traveled to Auschwitz, to Moscow, to Kosovo, and to the White House.

But a 1987 trip to Brazil stands out in the Nobel Peace Prize winner's memory.

"We were going to meet the president of Brazil," said Wiesel, who was being presented with an award. "And David just disappeared."

Pincus had discovered a colony of destitute children in São Paulo. Given the choice between attending a formal state banquet and a chance to spread joy among the poor, Pincus chose to visit the kids.

"That's David," said Wiesel.

Pincus is a largely unsung humanitarian, more comfortable working behind the scenes. He is well-known in Philadelphia art circles for his impressive modern collection and for donating his works to the region's biggest museums. But most of his charity has escaped notice because it was overseas, or anonymous.

"He is a man of many obsessions," said Gerry, his wife of 48 years. He is not a passive investor when he commits himself to a mission, whether it is art, a person in need, or a cause that captures his imagination.

For the last 25 years, Pincus has been consumed with easing the suffering of children. His obsession has led him on pilgrimages to witness wars and disasters - Sudan, Mozambique, Liberia, Haiti, the Balkans.

He has had some adventures. A Somali soldier pointed a gun at him for taking Polaroid pictures. He endured the stench of the dead multitudes after a tsunami hit Bangladesh. A starving child in Somalia died while cradled in his arms, an experience he will never forget.

Now, at 82, Pincus has turned his attention to charities closer to home that target disadvantaged children and youths - hospitals, playgrounds, Community College of Philadelphia.

At this stage of life, he is becoming less attached to material things. He traded in his SUV for a tiny red Honda. He is divesting his art to underwrite his philanthropy. He doesn't like to talk about the scale of his generosity - that flirts with boastfulness. But associates say his gifts easily exceed $1 million a year and are growing.

For somebody who prefers to keep a low profile, Pincus is hard to miss. Exuberant, emotional, and imposing - he's nearly 6-foot-5 - Pincus ran his family-owned company, Pincus Brothers-Maxwell, until the menswear manufacturer closed its plant at Fifth and Race Streets in 2004. PBM produced Bill Blass suits for 35 years, and once employed 1,100 people.

Pincus defies convention. His home in Wynnewood is a visual statement of a manic life that has inspired - and exasperated - loved ones.

His walls display works by some of the most celebrated modern artists: Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Clyfford Still. He juxtaposes the art with photos of poor children he has met during his journeys. There is a photo of the Pincuses with Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick. There's another of Pincus with golfer Arnold Palmer, whose clothing line he manufactured.

Spread among the artifacts are mountains of stuffed toys, which he has long promised his family are destined for an orphanage. But he can't seem to let them go.

"There's an element of insanity to the place," said Leslie Pincus-Elliot, 41, the youngest of his three children (Wendy, 48, lives in New York and Nathan, 47, near Wynnewood). She described her father as a "tough guy and an oddball" who, in the presence of needy children, "becomes a big puddle of mush."

Rabbi Neil S. Cooper, the head of Temple Beth Hillel Beth-El in Wynnewood, meets Pincus once a week to swap stories and to savor a shot of Jameson.

"He doesn't really care about finding big solutions to the world's problems," said Cooper. "Rather than trying to save Darfur, his primary mission is putting a smile on the face of children, even if it is in their dying moment."

Cooper recalled the day he met Pincus in 1991 when he took the reins of the synagogue. Cooper asked the congregation to submit names for mention in prayers. Most people offered up sick relatives, he said.

"And then this very large guy comes up and says, 'All the children of Somalia.' I was kind of taken aback. I asked around: 'Who is this man?' "

Rooted in sports

As with many of his obsessions, the origin of Pincus' overseas mercy missions lies in sports.

Pincus had been a champion discus thrower at Pennsylvania State University - he set a school record in 1948 - and he tried out for the Olympic team that year. He was also a scratch golfer. His interest in athletics led him to the Israel Sport Center for the Disabled in the mid-1970s.

"The center was something - the children, all disabled, the resourcefulness of them," said Pincus, whose tendency to speak in sentence fragments was exacerbated this year after he fell and required surgery for a brain hemorrhage, from which he has recovered.

As he is wont to do, Pincus dived in deeply to support the sports center. Through mutual friends with interests in Israel, he was introduced to Wiesel. They hit it off. Wiesel, who calls Pincus a "kindred spirit," invited him to sit on his charitable foundation's board. Pincus gets choked up talking about Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor.

Wiesel inspired Pincus to take a greater interest in world poverty. And that led Pincus to the front lines of the relief effort during the 1984 Ethiopia famine.

"Ethiopia really started the whole thing. It smacked me in the face," Pincus said. "Kids would die overnight, and in the morning you'd go over to a hill and watch them bury the children. Once you've seen it, once you've felt it, once you've been there, you can't run away from it."

Pincus returned to Philadelphia and told his family that each October, rather than celebrate his birthday with family, he would travel to a distressed part of the world.

His trademark became a pocketful of lollipops and Snoopy dolls. The reward: delighted children.

Human contact is essential.

"Feel, touch," he said. "When you just give money, you don't feel, touch."

His journals from the journeys reflect a man moved by suffering, and angered by indifference:

"The Serbs just bombed away like in a shooting gallery when they wanted, how they wanted," he wrote from a hotel room in Sarajevo in 1994. "It was plain murder all the time, while the world screwed around looking conveniently away. . . . Shame, shame on all of you for not reacting sooner."

Pincus began to develop a broader philanthropic strategy of aiding relief programs for children. But he often acted on impulse.

After reading an Inquirer article in 1994 about a Bosnian boy injured by sniper fire who was unable to get out of Sarajevo, Pincus arranged to airlift the teen to Paris for treatment.

"I know I'm doing something," said Pincus.

During the Balkans war, Pincus sponsored 10 Bosnian Muslims to come to the United States. He changed Amra Sabic-El-Rayess' life.

She was a promising 20-year-old student from the Bosnian city of Bihac when Pincus arranged for her to come to America in 1996. Over the years, Pincus has become her surrogate father, providing financial support and counsel. Now married with two children, Sabic-El-Rayess is completing doctoral work at Columbia University in international education and economics.

Sabic-El-Rayess was working for an investment bank in New York in 2001 when the terrorist attacks occurred. She was worried about the upwelling of anti-Islamic sentiment - the rhetoric brought back frightful memories of Bosnia.

She called Pincus.

"He said, 'Just keep doing what you're doing. This is the best country in the world. You'll succeed no matter what. People will recognize your talent.'

"For me, he embodies the spirit of this country," she said.

She said Pincus does not easily accept gratitude.

"Every time I send him a note or say, 'Thank you,' he says, 'Awww, please, stop. Don't mention it,' " she said.

"There are good people and bad people in the world," said Sabic-El-Rayess. "And there are those who are beyond good. That's David."

An engaging man

I met Pincus 10 years ago when I was The Inquirer's Africa correspondent. He was a board member of the International Rescue Committee, one of America's oldest relief organizations. A group of IRC leaders was making a road trip in West Africa to inspect field operations.

Because he has a bad back, Pincus sat in the front seat of the truck as we bounced over rutted roads through Liberia and Guinea. Even with the discomfort, he cheerfully related stories about his travels and his family's business.

He grew up in an ordinary twin house on Broad Street in East Oak Lane and graduated from Central High School. He was in the merchant marine during World War II. Crazy for sports, he golfed in the 1951 U.S. Amateur Championship.

But he became animated when he talked about his work with children. With a conspiratorial nod, he offered a glimpse into his luggage - a trove of sweets and plastic Snoopy figurines.

A Pincus encounter with children is a spectacle. At a camp of Sierra Leonean refugees, Pincus wandered off to seek out camp residents. A few children drew close to examine the curious foreigner with the grin and the goodies. Pincus insisted on placing the candies into the children's mouths - feel, touch.

As word spread, the young crowd grew larger. Pincus whipped everyone up.

When he had exhausted the supply of sweets, he winked and removed a rubber ball from a pocket and showed it to the children. And then, with a mighty discus-thrower's windup, he heaved the ball beyond the crowd. The children spun and took chase in merry chaos.

It wasn't clear who was having more fun. Pincus was pleased he had created some memories.

"You have a hundred kids running for the ball, and can you imagine the kid that got the ball?" he said later. "I got the ball. I've got the only ball in the camp. C'mon. I live some way through that."

IRC officials understood that the encounters with kids nourished some deep hunger in Pincus, and encouraged him to act out. But Pincus acknowledged that not everyone approved. Another relief organization had asked him to tone down the boisterous camp visits. That made Pincus about as happy as a Labrador on a short leash.

"Those things are so joyous for me," he said. "I love it. The rewards are so enormous for me."

I next heard from Pincus in 2001, when The Inquirer published my article about a conflict between South African AIDS activists and big pharmaceutical companies. Pincus phoned and wanted to know whom he could help.

I suggested the nurse who founded Sparrow's Nest, the AIDS hospice mentioned in the article. The Rev. Corine McClintock aspired to expand her hospice beyond the bungalow it occupied.

So Pincus contacted McClintock. She was about to discover what happens when this stranger from America goes "knee-deep" into a project.

First Pincus sent her some money. A few months later, he made the first of four visits to South Africa. He was accompanied by an AIDS expert, Stephen W. Nicholas, the director of pediatrics at Harlem Hospital Center, who went along to help Pincus assess the hospice's needs.

Of course, for Pincus there was an immediate payoff: a chance to clown with children, whom he took by the busload to an amusement park.

But a larger plan also emerged.

Pincus set up a U.S. charity, Friends of Sparrows, to channel tax-deductible contributions to the hospice. It has sent about $250,000 to South Africa. The hospice has expanded into a village housing 330 clients, mostly children, with a budget of $1 million.

A few months ago, he flew McClintock to Philadelphia for her 70th birthday, her first trip out of Africa. They visited the Harlem AIDS program.

Pincus also introduced her to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, where he recently committed $1.3 million over five years to create a global health fellowship that will send two pediatricians overseas to assist AIDS programs. The gift will help the hospital take a lead in international health, said Rodney Finalle, the fellowship director.

One of the Pincus Fellows will be based in southern Africa, assigned part time to what is now Sparrow Village.

"We couldn't have gone as far as we have without the support of David and his friends," said McClintock, who has other financial supporters, but none quite as intense as Pincus.

A multifaceted man

Nicholas, the Harlem pediatrician, met Pincus in 1986 when he was an emerging expert at Children's Hospital on pediatric HIV.

One day the hospital's development office called. A big donor had read an article about AIDS babies and demanded to know what Children's Hospital could do. Right now.

So Nicholas found himself with Pincus at PBM headquarters near Independence Mall.

"He's a big guy, sort of loud, very tangential, big thoughts," said Nicholas. "He tells me all the things he's been doing with kids, shows me all the pictures. I told him a little about kids with AIDS."

After an hour, Pincus stood up and took off his watch.

"I thought this was his way of telling me my time was up," said Nicholas.

Pincus handed him the watch, a gift. A Mickey Mouse watch.

"When you first meet him, you think he's a CEO, a leader, a powerful man," said Nicholas. "Then you find out he was an athlete, so you think: He's a jock.

"Wrong.

"Then you find out about his art, and you think, well, he's a collector. Wrong. Well, he is, but it doesn't tell you about this man."

Nicholas knew some things about Abstract Expressionism, and was impressed by Pincus' collection.

"This is a guy who collected art when he didn't have much money, but he had taste," said the doctor. "He has an eye, an aesthetic. Did he tell you he's color-blind?" In Pincus' world, green is brown and purple doesn't exist.

Pincus absorbs the smallest details about subjects he holds dear. Nicholas said that during the Summer Olympics - Pincus travels to the Games every four years - Pincus can recite the track-and-field competitors' best times, to the tenth of a second. He knows who owns just about every work by de Kooning, and where it has been exhibited. He can look at Wiesel, whose clothing he used to make, and rib him: "Elie, tell whoever's making your suits that your coat is a half-inch too long."

"This is a man who's got genuinely multiple facets," said Nicholas. "Then, when you think you've got that all figured out, you stumble onto his big heart, and you realize he's not like anyone you've ever known."

Nicholas said Pincus has "an unusual degree of sheer identification with others in pain, so when something painful in the world happens, he picks up the phone and he tells you: 'I'm hurting. They're hurting. We've got to go do something.' "

Nicholas experienced the Pincus persistence in 1990, a few weeks after Romanian President Nicolae Ceaucescu was deposed and executed, exposing a system of neglected children, some infected with AIDS.

"There was a story in the Times telling about kids stuck in orphanages in Romania," said the doctor. "David calls and says, 'We're going to Romania.' What the hell? My wife is about to give birth. He says, 'That's OK. You've got time for that to happen while we plan the trip.' "

Two weeks after the birth of Nicholas' first child, they were on a plane to Bucharest, where the bullet holes from the coup were still fresh.

The friendship between the Episcopalian pediatrician and the Jewish clothing manufacturer grew. Nicholas talks with Pincus almost every day.

In 1999, Pincus encouraged Nicholas to extend his outreach to the Dominican Republic. When Nicholas organized the International Family AIDS Program on the island, Pincus lined up support from Harold A. Honickman, the beverage mogul, and Sy Syms, the clothing retailer.

The program now treats 1,000 people and has become a model of AIDS care for the Caribbean. It will also host one of the Pincus Fellows from Children's Hospital.

"You get involved," said Pincus. "That's what I'm about. That's what you're supposed to do, if you can do it. You're supposed to not just think about your own life; you're supposed to do things for other people."

Pincus likes his privacy. He is a shy man, uneasy at social functions. "I don't go to any of these parties," he said. "I don't go anywhere. I'm not a snob. That's just not in my bag of tricks."

While Pincus has a vast reservoir of energy for projects that capture his imagination, Nicholas said he has little patience for regimentation. He gets bored easily. Pincus' daughter likens it to attention-deficit disorder.

"His attention is completely powered by his passion," said Nicholas. "When it's all said and done, nobody can match David Pincus for pure passion."

A family of immigrants

Pincus leaves it to others to analyze his motivations.

"I think there's a part of David angered at the inequities in the world, an anger that has gotten harder since the gaps have gotten wider in society," said Lynne Korman Honickman, Harold Honickman's wife. They have known the Pincuses for 50 years.

Gerry Pincus believes her husband suffered from the early death of his older brother, Nat, a mentor who introduced him to art and philanthropy. He died in 1983, when Pincus began his travels.

The Pincus family story is one of those remarkable 20th-century American tales of immigrants who prospered.

Pincus' father, Nathan, and uncles founded the clothing firm in 1911 after emigrating from what is now Belarus. The firm thrived. PBM became one of the largest manufacturers in an industry that employed 25,000 people in Philadelphia before the jobs went overseas.

Pincus and his brother, who was 14 years older, took over the business after their father died in 1960. Nat ran the manufacturing in Philadelphia. David commuted to New York, where he bought the cloth and sold the finished goods.

After his brother died at 71, Pincus created a foundation for cancer research at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in his memory. He also created the Rabbi's Fund, which supports local food banks. "My brother was my rock," he said.

His elder brother was also responsible for introducing him to art.

In the 1950s, Nat gave him a print by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Intrigued, Pincus started visiting galleries and museums. He developed a taste for the emerging New York school of Expressionists.

Pincus said he never regarded art as an investment, though some of his purchases became ridiculously valuable. "I choose works because something in them speaks to me," he said.

While his fascination with art was developing, so was his interest in Geraldine Ritter, a fetching nursing student who was 10 years younger. She spotted Pincus walking his basset hound in Rittenhouse Square. They were introduced by the watchman who guarded the park.

Two days before she was to marry another man, she canceled the wedding. Then she converted to Judaism so she could marry Pincus. "I wasn't a very good Catholic anyway," she said.

On their honeymoon in December 1960, the Pincuses were dining in Rome when they spied Henry Moore, the British sculptor, at a nearby table. For the young art aficionado, Moore was the Joe DiMaggio of sculptors.

Gerry Pincus sent a note to Moore's room. The artist invited the couple for breakfast, and they struck up a friendship. The newlyweds canceled plans to travel to Vienna, Austria, and went instead to Moore's home in England. As they were about to depart, Moore offered to sell them a "little remembrance" - a bronze sculpture of a woman on a bench. It's still at their Wynnewood house.

Pincus' connections in the art world multiplied. He became involved in the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania when it opened in 1963. Through the ICA, he met Warhol and acquired a few of his works, some of them promised to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Pincus headed the 20th Century Committee and was a trustee for more than 35 years.

Through ICA, Pincus also met the sculptor David Smith and bought two of his pieces. One was later donated to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where Pincus was a board member. The other was sold to help fund a seven-figure shortfall in the pension plan of PBM's employees. Pincus said he wanted to exit the business "like a mensch."

"He has a great eye, and recognized greatness early," said Penny Bach, executive director of the Fairmount Park Art Association, on whose board Pincus has served for 37 years.

Perhaps his closest friendship with an artist began in 1964 when Pincus met the abstract sculptor Mark di Suvero at a showing in New York. Pincus sent di Suvero a monthly $200 check while di Suvero was developing his signature style of giant steel I-beam forms.

"Wow, that man is from another dimension," di Suvero said of Pincus, who paid frequent visits to the artist's New York studio over the years. "He has the kind of electricity that is essential to art. He is a rare patron. He has this joy of giving."

Pincus bought di Suvero's bright-red, 40-foot-high Iroquois, which was installed two years ago on Pennsylvania Avenue across from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Bach calls it "the most generous contribution made by a private donor to public sculpture in Philadelphia."

Though Pincus is still acquiring art - he is a patron of contemporary artists Nan Goldin and Jeff Wall - he is mostly planning ways to convert the pieces into good deeds.

"It was wonderful living through that period of collecting art, and I enjoyed it," he said. "And now I'm doing something with it."

He sold a Brice Marden painting to finance new quarters in State College for Penn State's Hillel Foundation. He donated works to the Rhode Island School of Design.

He is helping Lankenau Hospital expand its maternity ward to serve a growing clientele from West Philadelphia. He gave more than $200,000 to Community College of Philadelphia to provide anonymous grants for students facing emergencies, such as a child-care crisis or a job loss.

He has thrown himself into the Smith Memorial Playground and Playhouse in East Fairmount Park, which on June 4 gave Pincus an award in recognition of his support. He gave $350,000 to fund a playground that music mogul Kenny Gamble opened June 25 at his Universal Cos. site in South Philadelphia. It will be known as Uncle David's Universal Playground.

Pincus' obsessions - particularly his willingness to travel to hot spots - came at some cost to family life.

"He has not always been easy to live with," said Gerry Pincus. She said her willful husband once departed with Wiesel on an emergency mission on Thanksgiving morning, leaving her to entertain 42 people - mostly his relatives.

"You put up with it," she said, "because you know there's a good man underneath."

His daughter, Pincus-Elliot, who commissioned a full-size Snoopy costume for Pincus' 70th birthday, said that when she was a teenager, her absentee father was the source of awe - and embarrassment.

Nobody else's dad flew off to save the world, she said. And nobody else's dad collected stuffed toys and the provocative works of Robert Mapplethorpe.

Now, as an adult, she regards her father with wonder and pride. She said they are closer now than ever.

"He is the most idiosyncratic man I know. There is no way to explain him," said Pincus-Elliot, a lawyer who lives in New York.

Pincus put a scare into his family this year with his fall and the hemorrhage. He has recovered, though he walks now with a cane.

"Until this man breathes his last," said his daughter, "he will be doing something for somebody somewhere."


A collector's view of the artists

David and Gerry Pincus have been collecting art for half a century. They've spent a lot of time socializing with artists. Here are his impressions of a few.

Willem de Kooning, one of his favorites: "He was a handsome guy, and he liked dames."

Claes Oldenburg, creator of the iconic Clothespin sculpture near City Hall, spent a day with the Pincuses in the early '70s, installing one of his Giant Three-Way Plug sculptures on their front lawn. "We asked him what he wanted to eat. He wanted melons. So Gerry had to rush out to the grocery to buy melons."

David Smith, "the most important American sculptor of the 20th century," stayed with the Pincuses when his 1964 show at the University of Pennsylvania's Institute of Contemporary Art opened. "We're all blitzed. Smith says: 'You know who the biggest collector of David Smith is? Me. Nobody wants my stuff. Next summer, why don't you come up to New York and we'll pile the stuff in a truck?' " Smith died in an auto accident the next spring before Pincus could make the journey. Smith's sculptures now are typically priced in the millions.

Mark di Suvero, a close friend whose giant Iroquois sculpture Pincus paid to have installed on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway: "Mark is crazier than a hoot owl."


 

See a slide show featuring David N. Pincus and read previous profiles in the series at http://go.philly.com/ defining_lives


Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth

at 215-854-2947 or amaykuth@phillynews.com.

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