Lorry Lokey was a donor to the Technion, among many other causes.
Lorry Lokey was a donor to the Technion, among many other causes.

Philanthropist Lorry Lokey, 95, gave millions for education

With his $6 million gift for the reconstruction of the Peninsula Jewish Community Center in 1999, Lorry Lokey easily could have required that the Foster City facility be named for him. Instead, not only did Lokey decline naming rights, but he also insisted the institution be called the PJCC in perpetuity. The institution itself was far more important to him.

A businessman, philanthropist and champion of the Jewish community, Lokey died Oct. 1 at his Atherton home. He was 95.

“That notion speaks volumes about who he was,” said Jordan Shenker, the PJCC’s executive director. “He wanted this place to be built because he believed so strongly in the idea of Jewish community.”

Over the years, Lokey gave hundreds of millions of dollars to charity, much of it centered on education, medical advances and the Jewish community. His largesse stemmed from the success of his company, Business Wire, a press release distribution service he founded in San Francisco in 1961. The 2006 sale of that company to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway for $600 million allowed Lokey to become one of the Bay Area’s most generous philanthropists.

More than a decade ago, Lokey promised to give more than half of his fortune to charitable causes addressing some of society’s most pressing problems when he signed on to the Giving Pledge, created by Buffett, Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates.

“It’s a little bit selfish to sit on tremendous excesses of assets until you’re dead,” Lokey said in a 2006 interview with J. “The real pleasure is the combo of doing the work and then seeing the profits [of philanthropy]. I’m not going to live it up like some Silicon Valley billionaires with their $100 million houses and yachts and airplanes. No way. That does no one any good.”

Born in 1927 in Portland, Oregon, Lokey grew up in a home steeped in Jewish culture, as well as a culture of giving.

“It really began around 1938, when I was 11 years old,” Lokey was quoted as saying in his obituary, “and I learned by seeing a bulletin as to how much people in [Portland] gave to the United Jewish Appeal, and I saw my mother’s name down there for a hundred dollars. This was half a month’s pay back then, and we were not very well-to-do. I went up to my mother and I said, ‘Mom, we can’t afford this, why did you do that?’ She said that ‘people need help,’ and that always stuck with me.”

While serving in the Army during World War II, Lokey worked for the military newspaper the Pacific Stars & Stripes. After the war, he attended Stanford University, where he served as editor of the Stanford Daily and earned a degree in journalism.

For several years he worked for United Press International and local newspapers around the country. Then, in 1961, with a $1,500 investment in a teletype machine, a phone and an office in San Francisco, he founded Business Wire, which distributed corporate press releases to a handful of California media outlets. By the time Lokey sold the company, it was an international powerhouse, with 500 employees and offices around the world.

“He always understood technology,” his daughter, Basya Lokey, said. “A few months ago, he told me about a new technology Apple has been developing and I couldn’t even follow him.”

The company’s business model of distributing corporate press releases proved enduringly successful, in part thanks to the Securities and Exchange Commission requirement that corporations make public disclosures of financial information.

“We’re like a mortician,” Lokey told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2001. “They need us. We’re not going to go away.”

Even before the sale of Business Wire, Lokey had become a high-impact philanthropist. In 2000, he gave $20 million to establish new biology and chemistry labs at Stanford. He continued to give generously to other institutions, including $20 million to Santa Clara University in 2001 and $5 million to Mills College in 2005. In 2007, he donated $74 million to the University of Oregon that boosted his total given to the university at the time to $132 million (out of the $392 million he had donated to universities and high schools up to that point). The university in his home state was one of the biggest recipients of his largesse.

His Jewish philanthropy spanned the Bay Area and Israel. Among his many donations were $10 million to fund the new University of Haifa downtown campus, $6 million to Camp Swig in 2002 and $25 million to the Technion Institute in Israel to jumpstart its Life Sciences and Engineering Interdisciplinary Research Center.

“We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of our friend, Lorry Lokey,” said Victoria Buder, executive director of principal gifts, Western region, for the American Technion Society. “Lorry’s impact on the Technion is at once singular and perpetual. Lorry truly touched those around him through his philanthropic endeavors. His generosity to the Technion, and to the State of Israel, leaves a lasting impact.”

Basya Lokey said her father and late mother, Eva, raised her and her sisters, Ann and Miriam, to appreciate both their Jewish heritage and the value of money.

“We never got a handout,” she said. “More a hand up. From a very young age, he gave us experience with finance to teach us. We got an allowance: two dimes, and we had to balance it between savings and tzedakah.”

Though Lokey sold his company, he stayed active with it, and with philanthropy, until the end. Despite the inevitable health issues that come up in old age, he never lost his commitment to giving nor his zest for life.

As he told J. when making the $6 million lead gift to the PJCC, he didn’t need the money anyway.

“It was just lying around and gathering dust,” he said.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.