Kevin Riordan: A good name lives on: Rohrer

William G. Rohrer ran a Chevrolet dealership and started a bank.
William G. Rohrer ran a Chevrolet dealership and started a bank.
Posted: October 16, 2011

William G. Rohrer sold cars, built a bank, and made a fortune in South Jersey real estate.

His Rohrer Chevrolet and First Peoples Bank empires are long gone; the man himself died, at 79, in 1989.

But the charitable foundation that bears his name is alive and well.

"My father would be so proud," Linda Rohrer said on Thursday as the Rohrer College of Business at Rowan University held the William G. Rohrer Professorial Chair investiture ceremony.

The elegant event in the Eynon Ballroom at the Glassboro campus drew more than 100 faculty, family, and friends, several of whom Rohrer helped get started in business.

"To me, he was like a god," said Cherry Hill developer Joseph Rodi, who was 18 and a recent immigrant from Italy when Rohrer lent him $2,000 to start a Camden car-repair shop in 1961.

"He was frugal with the people's money but generous with his own," said Gerald De Felicis, who served on the Haddon Township Commission for 16 years alongside Rohrer.

Established in 1989 under the terms of his will, the William G. Rohrer Charitable Foundation so far has donated $12 million to Rowan and a total of $25 million to scholarships, programs and institutions in Camden, Burlington and Gloucester Counties.

In Cherry Hill, there's the Rohrer campus of Camden County College. The foundation also supports the Institute for Successful Aging at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, in Stratford.

And in Haddon Township - where Rohrer was mayor for 36 years - his name is on the middle school and the library. The reading room there, built with $750,000 he bequested, includes a handsome, permanent exhibit about William G. Rohrer.

But bricks and mortar are hardly the point, says Linda Rohrer, 64, who runs her own real estate firm and is a trustee of the foundation.

"My father knew the value of an education," she says.

Born in Williamsport, Pa., Rohrer moved to Haddon Township in 1929 to help his father's Chevrolet dealership on Admiral Wilson Boulevard in Camden.

When his father died, the younger Rohrer had to drop out of the Wharton School of Business. He would finish his degree later, after taking over the dealership.

"He was only 25. It was up to him to carry on . . . and he had four sisters and a mother to take care of," Linda says.

"He had to go to Detroit to convince the corporate executives that he could manage the franchise. Somehow he convinced them . . . and it became the largest dealership on the East Coast."

She shows me around the school reading room, where cabinets hold drawers of Rohrer-abilia.

On the walls, dozens of plaques, photographs and news clippings attest to her father's long service in community organizations, as well as his career in local and state Republican politics.

My favorite artifact is the profoundly cluttered desk where Rohrer held court on the banking floor at First Peoples' headquarters, at Cuthbert and MacArthur Boulevards in Westmont. The building is now a branch of Wells Fargo, the bank's newest parent.

I vividly remember Rohrer - a big man in every sense - behind the desk, wearing a '70s suit, chatting with customers and munching a hoagie.

"I went to see him at First Peoples," recalled Gerry Banmiller, now CEO of 1st Colonial National Bank in Collingswood.

"He said, 'How much do you need, boy?' I'd forgotten the appraisal, so he wrote one up himself and pointed me to one of his people and said, 'Now go get your - mortgage.' "

Linda also described her father's steely side.

A "war" began between them when she transferred between colleges as an undergraduate, she recalled.

"He told me, 'You'll never finish. You'll never be anything in life. You'll be a loser.' "

"I said, 'You'll see, just you wait.'"

For the next two years, at every opportunity, her father would tease her. "He'd say, 'I'm surprised you made it this far,' " Linda recalled.

"After the graduation ceremonies, I handed him my diploma. "I said, 'This is for you'.

"He looked at me very quietly and said, 'No . . . You've earned it.'"


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq.

 

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