Art patron, humanitarian David Pincus dies at 85

Gerry and David Pincus in their Wynnewood, Pa., home in 2009.
Gerry and David Pincus in their Wynnewood, Pa., home in 2009. (Eric Mencher / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 21, 2011

David N. Pincus, 85, a passionate art patron and humanitarian, who lived life with gusto and devoted himself to relieving the suffering of children, died at his Wynnewood home Wednesday morning from leukemia. .

Mr. Pincus, the retired chairman of Pincus Bros.-Maxwell, a family-owned clothing manufacturer, was well-known in Philadelphia art circles for his impressive modern collection. Some of his donated works adorn the region's most prominent museums and public spaces.

A boisterous man, the nearly six-foot-five Mr. Pincus was a study in contradiction: He was intensely private yet impossible to ignore; he admired the paintings of Willem de Kooning as well as the cartoons of Charles M. Schulz.

Mr. Pincus was fond of basset hounds, stiff martinis, athletics and monumental acts of generosity.

He said his life was changed after he traveled to Ethiopia in 1984 during a famine and a starving child died in his arms. He journeyed each year to a nation in turmoil to bear witness - Sudan, Mozambique, Haiti, Liberia, South Africa.

"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," Rabbi Neil S. Cooper, the head of Temple Beth Hillel Beth-El in Wynnewood, said in a 2009 interview for an Inquirer profile on Mr. Pincus.

In his role as "Uncle David," his visits with relief agencies to refugee camps were spectacles. In a 1999 stop at a camp of Sierra Leoneans, he showered children with sweets, toys and Snoopy dolls, whipping them up into squeals of delight.

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

In recent years, his philanthropy was more focused on local efforts such as playgrounds, hospitals and schools. In 2008, he created the David N. Pincus Global Health Fellowship Program at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia that sends pediatricians to Africa and the Dominican Republic.

Mr. Pincus often acted impulsively. After reading about a Bosnian boy in 1994 who was injured by sniper fire in Sarajevo, he arranged to airlift the teen to Paris for treatment.

During a lifetime of civic involvement, Mr. Pincus served on many governing boards: Philadelphia University, Care International, the American Jewish World Service, and the International Rescue Committee, to name a few.

Among his favorites was the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where he headed the 20th Century Committee and was a trustee for more than 35 years.

"He is a man of many obsessions," his wife of 50 years, Gerry, said in 2009.

Stephen W. Nicholas, the director of pediatrics at Harlem Hospital Center, said Mr. Pincus had "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.' "

Mr. Pincus once skipped out on Thanksgiving dinner to travel with his friend, the humanitarian Elie Wiesel, on an emergency mission to some distant trouble spot. His family, accustomed to his willful ways, could only roll their eyes.

Leslie Pincus-Elliot, the youngest of his three children, described her father as a "tough guy and an oddball" who, in the presence of needy children, "becomes a big puddle of mush."

Mr. Pincus grew up in an ordinary twin house on Broad Street in East Oak Lane and graduated from Central High School. He was a lieutenant in the merchant marine during World War II.

After the war, he got a degree at Pennsylvania State University, where he was a champion discus thrower and a scratch golfer.

It seemed natural that Mr. Pincus would go into the clothing trade. His father and uncles, immigrants from what is now Belarus, founded Pincus Bros.-Maxwell (PBM) in 1911, and the firm prospered.

PBM expanded under the leadership of Mr. Pincus and his older brother Nat, becoming one of the largest menswear manufacturers in Philadelphia. It produced Bill Blass suits for 35 years, and once employed 1,100 people.

Like many American clothing makers, PBM was undone by foreign competition and by a dwindling market for business suits. In 2004, with considerable anguish, Mr. Pincus closed down PBM's plant at Fifth and Race Streets.

The clothing trade was Mr. Pincus' occupation. But it was art that gave him thrills.

He began collecting paintings in the 1950s and developed a taste for the emerging New York school of Expressionists. Some of his acquisitions became ridiculously valuable.

"You know, I bought and sold things for some wild numbers," he said of collecting art. "That's what kept me alive. Not the clothing business."

"He has a great eye, and recognized greatness early," said Penny Bach, executive director of the Fairmount Park Art Association, on whose board Mr. Pincus served for nearly 40 years.

Perhaps his closest friendship with an artist began in 1964 when Mr. Pincus met the abstract sculptor Mark di Suvero when the artist was developing his signature style of giant steel I-beam forms.

"Wow, that man is from another dimension," di Suvero said of Mr. Pincus in 2009. "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 in 2007 on Pennsylvania Avenue across from the art museum. Bach called it "the most generous contribution made by a private donor to public sculpture in Philadelphia."

The Pincus home in Wynnewood is a visual statement of an idiosyncratic life. The walls display works by some of the most celebrated modern artists, juxtaposed with photos of poor children Mr. Pincus has met during his journeys. There are photos of the Pincuses with artists, politicians and athletes, such as Arnold Palmer, whose clothing line Mr. Pincus manufactured.

Gerry Pincus acknowledged that her headstrong husband sometimes tried her patience. "You put up with it," she said, "because you know there's a good man underneath."

Pincus-Elliot, his daughter, regarded her father as a source of wonder. "Until this man breathes his last, he will be doing something for somebody somewhere" she said two years ago.

True to form, even as he entered hospice care this month, he instructed his longtime assistant, Danielle Scott, to mail out the annual Uncle David holiday cards and gifts he bestowed on a wide circle of friends.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Pincus is survived by two other children, Wendy, of Wynnewood, and Nathan, of Wayne; a sister, Maxine Epstein; and five grandchildren.

Services at set for 1 p.m. Friday at Temple Beth Hillel Beth-El, 1001 Remington Road, Wynnewood.

The Inquirer's 2009 profile of Mr. Pincus can be viewed here: http://bit.ly/ssyYgk


Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947, @Maykuth on Twitter or amaykuth@phillynews.com.

 

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