Henri Landwirth, Ponte Vedra philanthropist famous for his rags-to-riches life story of surviving the Holocaust to become a highly successful hotelier in Cocoa Beach and Orlando, has a motto: The family that gives together, stays together.
As a man who grew up in German concentration camps and left Belgium after World War II to arrive in New York City with only a sixth-grade education, no understanding of English and $20 in his pocket, Landwirth’s life story would make Horatio Alger proud.
In his 20s he worked his way through the ranks of the hotel industry, receiving some schooling in hotel management thanks to the G.I. Bill after military service in Korea, to manage the famous Starlite Hotel and a Holiday Inn in Cocoa Beach at the start of the Space Race. Eventually he made millions becoming part owner in several successful Holiday Inns in the area around Disney World.
But perhaps the thing Landwirth is most famous for is charity.
He is founder of several nonprofit organizations including the Jacksonville-based Fanny Landwirth Foundation, Dignity U Wear, and Memories of Love, co-founded in 2006 with his good friend Mel Gottlieb of San Jose.
Outside of Northeast Florida, Landwirth also founded the Mercury 7 Foundation, renamed the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, as well as Orlando’s Give Kids the World Village, which he established in 1986 to provide a place for terminally ill children and their families to stay while enjoying Orlando’s theme parks free of charge.
While in Orlando and bringing up his children, Landwirth got an early taste of philanthropy when he accepted a director’s position with a foundation that helped handicapped children. He was thrilled to assist the kind of kids that would have been killed on sight in Nazi Germany, giving them a chance to work at his hotels so they could contribute to society. For his efforts, he was named Florida’s Man of the Year, which was the first of many prestigious awards he would receive in his lifetime.
Growing up, Greg Landwirth and Lisa Landwirth Ullman recall their father was “always involved in the community.” He started his last two nonprofits – Dignity U Wear and Memories of Love – 16 years ago when he became bored with retirement after moving to Ponte Vedra.
Unfortunately, Landwirth, 89, suffers now from dementia and lives a quiet life in Cypress Village, said Lisa. But to his daughter and son, “altruistic” and “compassionate” are words which describe him, even though he was a man who suffered four divorces and was often distant from his family.
“Growing up, he was not real expressive with love and healing, and it was understandable due to what he had lived through,” said Greg. “I think he has always had a get-out-of-jail free card. If there was something we couldn’t do or didn’t do or if he was wrong, we always gave him the benefit of the doubt. We never wanted him to suffer more than he already had. We were all good kids, and if we weren’t, he didn’t know about it,” he said.
Perhaps the most valuable legacy Landwirth’s children received from their father was his example.
“He was so driven, and there was a good side and a bad side to that,” said Lisa. “He worked a lot because the hotel was always open. A piece of the family, he had to sacrifice. But because he was so driven, he taught us to fight for what we want and to get an education because it’s something that can never be taken away from you,” she said.
“The one overall value he taught us was to accept all races and religions, to accept everyone, because if you don’t that’s the beginning of hate and discrimination,” Lisa continued, recalling a time in the 1960s when her father fired the manager of his Holiday Inn because he refused to rent rooms to the black baseball players in the Detroit Tiger’s organization, in town for spring training.
“Dad stepped in and said, ‘Oh, no. You’re going to be removed if you don’t let them stay here.’ It was a big deal and it made all the papers,” she recalled. “He saw no color. There was no prejudice in him.”
When he worked in Orlando, Landwirth often hosted appreciation parties for his employees, inviting them into his home, said Greg, noting his father would also buy food for homeless people instead of giving them money.
“What an inspiration he was for giving to others,” Lisa said. “His spirit of giving was one of the biggest gifts he gave to us.”
When Landwirth established the Fanny Landwirth Foundation, a charity named for his mother, to help needy people and the nonprofit organizations that serve them, he required his children – Lisa, Greg and their older brother Gary – and eventually their spouses – Lisa’s husband, Glenn Ullmann and Gary’s wife, Theresa – to serve on the board. Twice a year the family members gather to present grants to various nonprofit organizations.
Meanwhile, his grandchildren – Lisa’s daughters, Sarah Ussery Rudolph, Emily Ussery, and Greg’s children, Max Landwirth, and his sister Rebecca – are being prepped to become future board members. “His grandchildren are on the junior board, which we call the Next Gen Board,” said Lisa. “They listen in at our board meetings. They’ve researched grants and have given some grants themselves. Our next goal is to go to a family foundation conference together,” she said.
“[Having family on the board] is something my father started and something he wanted to do to help keep us together as a family. One of the reasons he started the foundation was for us to work together as a family to give to nonprofits, which we continue to do,” she said. The Fanny Landwirth Foundation gives away approximately $250,000 in grants per year.
What an inspiration he was for giving to others, His spirit
of giving was one of the biggest gifts he gave to us.
— Lisa Landwirth Ullmann
As a father, Landwirth also had another requirement – that his children become intimately involved in the nonprofit world by starting their own charities.
“He encouraged us to work in the nonprofit industry if we could. We were nurtured to start our own nonprofits, too. All of us,” said Lisa.
Landwirth’s oldest son, Gary, works as a nonprofit consultant in Asheville, North Carolina and once served as an employee of Give Kids the World in Orlando where he had the chance to observe his father in action. Knowing his father, who left school at age 13, valued education, Gary started up the highly successful nonprofit, A Gift for Teaching, which works with local businesses giving teachers access to free school supplies, furniture, computer accessories and toys. Recently, the Orlando-based A Gift for Teaching gave away more than $100 million in free school supplies, Greg said.
Following in his brother’s footsteps, Greg replicated Gary’s charity in Tampa, using a $100,000 grant from Fanny Landwirth as seed money. It also was highly successful and brought him recognition as a top nonprofit in the state a few years ago, said Lisa.
When it came to developing her own charity organization, Lisa joined with her cousin, Lori Guadagno, to establish Art with a Heart in Healthcare, a healing art program based out of Wolfson Children’s Hospital. “We work individually with the patients and in group art sessions,” said Lisa. “So far we have served more than 40,000 patients,” she said, noting the program has expanded to Nemours Children’s Specialty Care and Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital.
Scarred emotionally from the loss of his parents, who were killed by the Nazis, and his tenure in five different concentration camps over five years, Landwirth identifies with the homeless, the hungry, the undereducated and the terminally ill children his charities were created to serve. During his teenage years he was hungry, abused, and known only by the yellow Star of David on his arm and a tattooed number, B-4343, near his wrist.
Landwirth’s life was miraculously spared at war’s end when a Nazi soldier, ordered to go out in the woods and shoot him along with four other prisoners, fired his gun in the air and demanded they run.
At first he was filled with hatred and anger at his lot in life, Landwirth said in a video clip, posted online by Hate Hurts, a project he took up after he retired. In order to prevent suffering, stop discrimination and the kind of hatred he experienced in the Holocaust, he shared his experiences with youth groups so it might not happen again.
“I wanted to jump out of my skin sometimes because of the hate I had,” he said. “Thank God, I don’t know when, how or where, but all of a sudden it left me. It just went away and forgiveness came along, and I became a completely different person.”
“My father healed himself through his philanthropy,” said Lisa. “His first big contribution was Give Kids the World. I think what he did was see himself in the eyes of the children as they were dying. When he was young he never knew when his time might come, and I think he identifies with those children.”
Interested in helping the homeless, it was on a visit with Lisa to the I.M Sulzbacher Center that Landwirth got the idea for Dignity U Wear. After asking a group of homeless men how he could help them, a middle-aged, weather-beaten, malnourished man stood up and pulled down his pants to reveal his naked buttocks.
“I need some underwear,” he said, and Landwirth knew he could help. He and Lisa went immediately to K-Mart and bought every pair of socks and underwear on the shelves. Then he began calling his corporate contacts asking if he could buy all the packages of underwear and socks that had been opened by customers or returned to their stores. Even though he did not have a specific recipient in mind, several companies offered to give him surplus clothing, and his friend, Jay Stein, got Stein Mart involved.
“Once we started, we had so many pairs of socks and underwear we had to open a storage unit in Ponte Vedra,” Lisa recalled, adding that she, her father and his wife, Linda, personally spent time sorting through the clothes. “Then we went to a bigger unit, then two, and he finally had to buy the warehouse on Myrtle Street.”
“Dad never wanted to turn down a donation of clothes,” Greg explained. “Sometimes they would make him take the whole truck. That’s when Dad realized he needed to grow, and he spent the next 10 years working on Dignity U Wear.”
Through December 2015, Dignity U Wear has donated 9.2 million pieces of brand-new clothing valued at $160.5 million to more than one million children, men and women in 43 states.
“Henri is the dignity in Dignity U Wear,” said Janet Reagor, chief operating officer of the nonprofit. “If you’ve ever seen him interacting with a recipient of his generosity, Henri is so focused on the person, it’s as if they are the only two people in the room.”
Parker McCrary, Chairman of the Dignity U Wear Board of Directors agreed. “Meeting Henri Landwirth was one of the most memorable moments of my life,” he said. “People want to be around Henri, and when he asks you to do something, it is very hard to say ‘no’ because he asks from a quiet place of passion and compassion.”
Although Landwirth loved Dignity U Wear, it was Give Kids the World which was particularly close to his heart, Lisa said. “With Dignity you don’t see the families right there. You see the backend of it with the sorting and the warehouse. He likes to get things started and work with the companies to make it happen, then he is okay to step away once that happens,” she said.
Both Greg and Lisa said they hope their children will follow in their grandfather’s footsteps by keeping their sights on the nonprofit world.
“I hope they will continue to volunteer, do mission trips and continue to see the world in a way that is not the way they were raised,” said Lisa. “Volunteerism, site visits with us, continuing to serve the Fanny Landwirth Foundation and also, on their own, to do what they can to contribute to their own communities and make the world a better place is what I hope for,” she said. “And I hope they will see that we try to live that way and that by doing so they will emulate their grandfather.”