George Konheim, philanthropist, business entrepreneur and a pillar of the Los Angeles Jewish community, died Saturday, Dec. 8, at the age of 84.
Konheim died of complications of pneumonia and renal and heart failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
His greatest legacy can be found in Cheviot Hills, just off the 10 freeway. There sits the sprawling 15-acre campus of Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services, which Konheim nurtured to prominence as a premier social-service agency for abused and emotionally disturbed children and adolescents. "He took a little organization, rebuilt it and expanded it," his close friend and business associate Bram Goldsmith told The Journal. "Vista del Mar was his love."
Vista, a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, was founded in 1908 as the Jewish Orphans Home of Southern California in East Los Angeles, one of the city's first Jewish charities. Konheim began his involvement with the organization in the early 1950s. He served 27 years as chairman of the board of directors, and stayed active in Vista into the early 1990s.
"George made Vista what it is today," Vista CEO Gerald Zaslaw told The Journal. "His philosophy was that no child or family should go unserved because of their inability to pay. This drove him to be a fantastic fundraiser."
Konheim helped raise at least $15 million to finance the expansion and renovation of the Vista campus. "He put us in a position to enable us to underwrite charitable services to families who needed it," Zaslaw said. According to Zaslaw, Konheim's involvement in Vista continued until about two years ago, when his ill health made the two men's regular meetings difficult.
Konheim's devotion to Vista's work for children stemmed from his own childhood experiences. Born in Akron, Ohio, in 1917, Konheim grew up without his father, who was killed in a fire. At age 8, he began supporting his mother, brother and two sisters by selling newspapers and bagels. Still, money was tight.
He often recounted the story of seeking help from Jewish charities. After he received a pair of shoes from one charity, he promised himself that one day he would help other children and families as he had been helped.
In addition to Vista, Konheim was an active philanthropist for many organizations, including the Boy Scouts of America, the Child Welfare League of America, City of Hope, DARE, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, The Jewish Federation, the Los Angeles County Museum and the Music Center Foundation, of which he was a founder.
Following the death of his son, Neil, in a 1982 jetliner fire in China, Konheim created the Neil Konheim Know Your Body Program which teaches children about healthy living. It is now known as the Health Champions Program and is taught in many school districts throughout California.
His astounding business success made his dream of helping others possible. A high school dropout, he bought the first of several vegetable pushcarts while still a teenager. He studied engineering in night school, and during World War II he worked at Pratt & Whitney, which manufactured military airplane engines.
Eventually Konheim came to own a chain of successful gas stations in Ohio. He and his family moved to Los Angeles in 1947, and he founded Buckeye Construction Co., building postwar homes in Cheviot Hills and Beverlywood. In 1950 he turned his focus to commercial real estate, joining with Goldsmith, the current chairman of the board of City National Bank. The partnership lasted 50 years. "He was one of the most responsible dedicated people I ever knew," Goldsmith said. "He was a brother to me."
His dedication to Jewish life extended beyond philanthropy. He helped found Temple Beth Am on La Cienega Boulevard. "Judaism went deeper with George," eulogized Jacob Pressman, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Am, at Konheim's funeral service on Dec. 11. Konheim hosted large Chanukah celebrations at Vista del Mar, and held massive communal seders in his home. At Purim, he sent Shalach Manot, and at Rosh Hashana, he sent gifts of crown-shaped challahs and honey to hundreds on his long list of friends and acquaintances. "In his way, George was a missionary for meaningful Jewish observance, who embraced literally thousands of people in the warmth of his love for what he called Yiddishkeit," Pressman said. Every year during Sukkot, Konheim hosted three parties in the sukkah at his Beverly Hills home. Some 200 people attended each night -- friends, business associates and Vista activists.
"He had a remarkable ability to enlist the support of the community, because he was such a philanthropist himself," Zaslaw said. He really believed philanthropy was an opportunity he was offered. He believed philanthropists got more out of it than they gave."
In numerous speeches over the years, Konheim always turned the tables on those who sought to thank him for his giving. "I have been so fortunate to be associated with Vista," he would say. "I am really a lucky guy."
Konheim is survived by his wife of 61 years, Eva; sons, Bruce and Lyn; daughter, Terri Cooper; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the George Konheim Fund at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services, 3200 Motor Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90034. -- Staff Report