Jewish Journal

Philosophy of a Philanthropist

by Rachel Brand

Posted on Jun. 27, 2002 at 8:00 pm

On the wall of philanthropist and humanitarian Richard Gunther's office hangs a photo of a man triumphantly standing atop a Western Nepal mountain peak.

While Gunther is not the man in the picture, he is the photographer, and the photo perhaps symbolizes his view of the world. Gunther, 77, lives by two self-coined mottos: 1) "Life is a great big adventure," 2) "Live life with a sense of awe and mystery."

His great big mysterious adventure culminated in receiving the 2002 UCLA Community Service Award on May 18, joining a prestigious group of past recipients that includes actors and community leaders.

While the honor marks a major pinnacle in his life's journey, Gunther says he never set out in pursuit of reward. Instead, he merely lives by the philosophy that he developed for himself. "I divide my life into thirds," Gunther said, noting the components are business affairs, physical and emotional fitness and involvement in public interest.

Gunther meticulously divides public interest into three categories: 1) the Jewish world, 2) adult development and aging and 3) microenterprise and microfinancing. "It is not a rigid formula, but a vision of the elements in my life," he said.

Yet Gunther chooses his causes carefully. "I like to participate in things as best I can. Not just money, but energy, too," said Gunther, who is constantly out in the field. "I assess a cause from the heart-level. I have to relate to it emotionally, and it has to make sense intellectually."

"A lifetime of experience gives me the opportunity to participate in a wide variety of things," he said, adding that he has not forgotten the importance that Judaism plays in his life, and he has dedicated countless hours to the Jewish world. For example, during one of his first jobs, Gunther's boss insisted that he attend a weekend at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley. "It opened up a world to me," Gunther said, noting that his Judaism had not previously played a significant role in his life. Since then, tikkun olam has been Gunther's driving force. "You have to get beyond yourself," Gunther said.

His past Jewish activities include president of Peace Now, co-chair of Operation Exodus, co-chair of The Jewish Federation Council Committee on Jewish Life and founding chairman of the Israel Economic Development Task Force in Los Angeles. Gunther currently sits on the boards of the Joint Distribution Committee, the Executive Committee of the Israel Policy Forum and The Jewish Journal.

Next on Gunther's public service agenda is what he refers to as "the business of aging." He is a member of the Commission on Aging for the State of California, the principal advisory body on all issues affecting senior citizens, including health, housing and transportation. Gov. Gray Davis appointed Gunther to the commission in 2000 for his prior contributions in aging advocacy. However, the aspect that Gunther is most involved with is "rebranding aging completely, by changing the consciousness of the population" with efforts such as teaching aging in schools. "Aging should really be looked at as a third stage in life where people can be contributing at that stage and not looked at as a burden," Gunther said.

Most significantly, in 1997 Gunther created the Legacy Award Program, recognizing seniors who make unique contributions in their communities. The program is still in existence today.

Microenterprise and microfinancing, the third objective on his public service agenda, has taken him around the world in his work with Grameen Bank, a bank offering microloans without collateral to 30 million poverty-stricken families. He traveled to Bangladesh and China where he helped extend Grameen's efforts. "It could make a major dent in world poverty," he said.

Gunther's life has come full circle: from the day in 1943 when he began classes at UCLA after being discharged from the Army, to the 2002 recipient of the UCLA Community Service Award. He associates positive memories with his alma mater, including sitting in the stands for numerous basketball games. But "my wife is the most important thing I took from UCLA," Gunther said. Gunther and his wife, Lois, proposed to each other on the steps of Royce Hall. Fifty-five years later, they have three married sons and three grandchildren. A fourth grandchild was fatally injured by a drunk driver five years ago.

Now that Gunther has reached the top of the mountain, there are many things that he looks forward to doing while he is there. "I want to participate in the growth of my grandchildren," said Gunther, who is co-authoring a science fiction story with his 12-year-old grandson, Sam. In addition, he and Lois have an annual tradition of choosing a particular state or country, studying it and touring it by way of bicycle. Next year's destination -- perhaps Vietnam.

"I want to continue the life I have," Gunther said. "I feel very fortunate."

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