Benefactor to the nth degree, Laurence E. Myers, dies

In his youth, Laurence E. Myers defended his Jewish friends with his fists. In his later years, he advanced Jewish causes with his time — not to mention, his money.

Called "a leader amongst leaders," by his friend Harold Zlot, Myers was a past president of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, Bureau of Jewish Education, American Jewish Congress and the Jewish Home. He also served as president of Menorah Park, chair of Israel Bonds and treasurer of Congregation Emanu-El, as well as on the boards of Mount Zion Hospital and the Jewish Community Endowment Fund.

On the national level, he was vice president of the Council of Jewish Federations and vice president of JESNA, the Jewish Education Service of North America.

Myers died of cancer on Aug. 22 in San Francisco. He was 80.

Born in Scranton, Pa., on July 2, 1922, Myers was the son of a physician who made house calls to coal miners. His parents were very involved in the Jewish community, and several of his uncles and his brother were presidents of their federations.

Myers described the "endemic anti-Semitism" he grew up with, in an oral history project of Bay Area Jewish leaders that was recorded by Willa Baum in 1997.

"Back then, even a local Catholic church was "preaching about Jews drinking the blood of Christian kids. I know that for a fact," said Myers. "I was a very good boxer, so I would fight the battles of the Jewish community."

Myers attended the University of Scranton for a time but did not graduate. Instead, he enlisted, and earned a Bronze Star for his service in the Army in World War II.

He founded Laurence Myers & Co. in Ohio, a scaffolding and construction equipment firm, and later, business reasons brought him to San Francisco. He sold the business in 1964 when he was 42.

In 1953 he married Eleanor Orwitz. Their marriage would last 48 years.

"He adored his wife," said Myers' daughter, Lisa Goldman. "They had a perfect marriage, with such a great love and devotion for one another."

Also describing him as the perfect father and grandfather, Goldman said her father's great joy was taking his wife, two children and their spouses and five grandchildren to Hawaii each year.

He was a people person, and "loved talking to young guys about starting a business, and loved fixing up young men with nice girls in the Jewish community," said Goldman. "He always said: 'Let's put people together.'"

The consummate sports fan, Myers had season tickets to the Oakland A's and the San Francisco Giants and 49ers.

His son, Mark Myers, said he had three hobbies: his family, the Jewish community and sports, though sports was a distant third.

"It was always a pleasure to attend the game with Larry, as he had so much knowledge and so much enthusiasm for the game," said Zlot, another past JCF president.

While he remained a business consultant, Myers was known for devoting 60-hour weeks to the cause, that cause being the Jewish community. Despite battling cancer for the past few years, he carried a notebook and was taking notes at a meeting one week before he died.

Goldman said her father was known for his date book.

"He wrote every little thing and had 100 things to do on each page," said Goldman. "He would give me advice, and then on the next day's page, write a note to remind me of the advice he had given me. The next day, he'd ask, 'Did you follow through and take my advice?'"

Goldman suggested that the key to his many accomplishments in the Jewish community could be found in those date books — in his meticulous record keeping.

"He was a man to whom no task for the Jewish community was too modest or unimportant," said Alan Rothenberg, a past JCF president who knew Myers for 30 years. "He devoted his life to solving problems even before they appeared. He really believed in community and in solving things large and small. He believed that that's what we were put on this earth to do. No one who ever called and said they needed help with anything would get turned away."

Myers had a special interest in the elderly, and it is largely because of him that Menorah Park, the assisted-living center for Jewish seniors, was built. He believed so strongly in it, that he put up much of the money to buy the land for it himself, before it had wide support in the community.

When Menorah Park was built, "it was his proudest moment at the time," recalled Rothenberg. "Everyone was saying, 'How can the community afford it?' But he just bulldozed through with his own money until he could get the community to join him."

In 1988, Myers told the Jewish Bulletin. "Every time I drive by Menorah Park, I feel good. I feel proud of being able to help create it."

Myers was also instrumental in saving the JCC of San Francisco from financial ruin. He served as its president some 30 years ago, and then again about six years ago.

"He took the helm right when the JCC was being restructured, and set it on a course that led to its rejuvenation and new building," said Nate Levine, the JCC's executive director. "He did it with great style and dedication and commitment."

While he was JCF president, Myers oversaw the completion of the first phase of the largest demographic study of Jews ever done in the Bay Area. He also spearheaded the largest capital project ever to come before the JCF at that time, which was the $11 million Osher Marin JCC.

It was also under his tenure that the JCF began distributing its allocations in Israel by bypassing the Jewish Agency.

Myers was also involved in the Jewish community on the national level. In the mid-1980s, he served as vice president of the Council of Jewish Federations, and in 1990, he served as co-chair of the Council of Jewish Federations' General Assembly, as it was held that year in San Francisco. To do this job, he presided over the steering committee of 50 and a volunteer group of about 800.

In the non-Jewish world, Myers served on several committees of the United Way, as director of the San Francisco Builders Exchange and of the Concordia-Argonaut Club.

Myers was battling cancer for years, and throughout his ordeal, he never complained, said Zlot. "He always said he felt fine, and would not cut back on his full schedule of luncheon dates, even though he had a full schedule of doctor's appointments."

Rothenberg recalled an April 2001 dinner that kicked off the JCC's capital campaign and also honored Myers. By that point it was quite clear that Myers did not have much time left, and Rothenberg felt grateful that his friend had the rare opportunity to hear how much the community appreciated his efforts.

"It was a way to say thank you to someone who you could never say thank you to," he said.

In 1988, Myers was interviewed by the Jewish Bulletin about his term as JCF president, and said something that, no doubt, anyone who knew him would agree with.

He said, "I would like to be remembered as someone who extended himself to the nth degree for our community."

Myers is survived by his wife, Eleanor, of San Francisco; son, Mark, of Kentfield; daughter, Lisa Goldman, of San Francisco; five grandchildren; and brothers Morey of Scranton and Lee of La Jolla.

Donations can be made to the JCC of S.F., 1808 Wedemeyer St., S.F., CA 94129, or the Dr. S.Z. and Libbye Myers Fund at the Jewish Home, 302 Silver Ave., S.F., CA 94112.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."