Detroit. A young boy and his mother ride a streetcar down Woodward Avenue on their way to the Jewish Community Center where he is to embark on his first trip to summer camp. The boy’s family has limited means, but through a scholarship he is able to go to Fresh Air Camp for just three dollars a week.
As they approach the Center, the boy sees the name Aaron DeRoy written upon the building.
“Who is Aaron DeRoy?” he asks his mother.
“Mr. DeRoy was a very generous person,” she says, “who gave back to the community.”
The experience has a profound impact on him and it is one he will never forget. The boy’s name is Eugene Applebaum and in that moment he decides that one day he will help others, just as he himself has been helped with the precious opportunity to go to camp.
Decades later, Mr. Applebaum will endow a village at the same camp, now known as Tamarack, which continues to provide scholarships to thousands of children who otherwise would not have the chance to spend a summer there. Visiting camp one day, he sees a young boy wearing a t-shirt bearing the words Applebaum Village. The experience is a powerful and emotional reminder of how far he has come, and of the pledge he has kept to help others.
“As a Jewish person,” Mr. Applebaum said recently, “we are instructed by the Torah to give tzedakah to the Jewish people, and I feel a great responsibility to do this. I want to share the success I’ve had with the Jewish people.”
With this simple but essential motivation, Mr. Applebaum has spent a lifetime sharing, leading and inspiring others with his remarkable vision and generosity.
The Making of a Leader
Joseph and Minnie Applebaum provided their son with a strong and lasting Jewish foundation. His father was an ardent Zionist, while his mother shared her deep religious beliefs and values. He remembers being taken to Dexter Avenue to see David Ben Gurion pass on his way through the city, a memorable event in a life of deep commitment to the Jewish state.
While the neighborhood was not financially affluent, Mr. Applebaum grew up surrounded by a number of spirited, fun-loving Jewish kids, many of whom would later become business associates and leaders of the community. Among these, he credits David Hermelin, a close friend from kindergarten, with being an influential force in his life as well as many others.
Sidney Forbes, a close friend of Mr. Applebaum, credits much of his friend’s success and impact to his optimism and warm, infectious personality.
“As you go through life, there is always a special person that makes everybody feel good, and who sets the mood and tone for anything that is going on,” he says. “Gene has always been that way. He’s always had a great nature and a smile on his face.”
Like many others, Mr. Forbes also praises his friend’s deep values. “The word I would use is integrity. People trust him, they believe in him. And he’s always been dedicated to wanting to help. When he’s been in a position to do it, he’s always given and he’s done a tremendous number of good things. He’s always been committed to Federation, to Israel, to the health system, to education. He’s just been a good person, a good man—he stands for all the good that we look up to and reach for.”
Husband, Father and Role Model
Eugene met and married his wife Marcia in 1961, and since then they have been best friends and partners for over five decades. She recounts that, from the very beginning, he has had the desire to help others.
“He has a big heart,” she says, “and he’s always been there for people, he always tries to make a difference.”
The Applebaums have two daughters, Lisa and Pamela, and four grandchildren. Marcia notes that it has been important to them to expose their children to the values that have guided their lives.
Despite being extraordinarily focused on his work, he was able to share his passion and engagement with his daughters. Both Lisa and Pamela fondly remember weekend outings to visit his stores or scout future prospects, which he always managed to make fun as well as educational. They also recall a childhood filled with spirited dinner table discussions and warm celebrations during the Jewish holidays.
“He was a phenomenal role model,” Pamela says, noting that in addition to his strong work ethic he also taught them the importance of caring for others. “He always felt very strongly about taking care of the generation before you and he made sure we were all involved in caring for both his and our mother’s parents. Caring for family was always really important to him and that transfers to the whole community at large. You can’t just take care of yourself, you have to take care of others.”
Lisa’s shares this same essential lesson. “One of the most important things he’s taught us is to give back” she says, “and how much of a difference it can make in the lives of so many people, to help them through a crisis or just to fulfill their dreams as you’ve been able to fulfill yours. That’s what I carry around with me and what I’ve learned from my father.”
A Lifetime of Making A Difference
Mr. Applebaum graduated from the Wayne State University College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences and soon opened his first pharmacy in Dearborn, Civic Drugs. Through hard work, determination and a visionary growth strategy, Mr. Applebuam rapidly expanded the business and, in 1974, he brought together six drugstores in the metro Detroit area to form Arbor Drugs, Inc. The growing drugstore chain was known for its exceptional quality and outstanding employees, many of whom would eventually take stock in the company as a reflection of their confidence and pride in the business. Arbor was named Drug Store News “Regional Chain of the Year” multiple times, and Mr. Applebaum himself was acknowledged as a “CEO of the Year” by Financial World Magazine.
After thirty-five years running one of the largest and most successful drugstore chains in the region, Mr. Applebaum sold the business to the premier national pharmacy retailer, CVS. He then focused his energy running Arbor Investments Group, a real estate and financial investment company for which he serves as President. He also was able to devote himself to the work that has motivated him since his days as a boy; helping his fellow Jews and others through philanthropy.
The range and depth of the Applebaum’s humanitarian work is extraordinary. They have been longstanding pillars of the Detroit Jewish community and major donors to Federation, for which Eugene serves on the Board of Governors. In 1999, Eugene and Marcia announced the largest capital gift in the history of Metro Detroit’s Jewish community through the Jewish Federation’s Millennium Campaign for Detroit’s Jewish Future, expanding and beautifying the 195-acre West Bloomfield Jewish Community Campus, which is named the EUGENE AND MARCIA APPLEBAUM JEWISH COMMUNITY CAMPUS. One of the most special endowments he has created is Tamarack Camp’s Applebaum Village, an enduring tribute to the summer camp that meant so much to him as a child.
Additionally, he is a co-founder of the Applebaum-Hermelin-Tauber Child Development Center in Israel; formed the Eugene and Marcia Applebaum Beth Hayeled Building and Jewish Parenting Center at Congregation Shaarey Zedek; and established the Eugene and Marcia Applebaum Professorial Chair at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. He is a member of the Taubman Institute Advisory Board and also serves as an honorary chair of the Foundations’ Board of Advisors for the Detroit Jewish News Foundation.
“The Jewish News (JN) plays a very important role because it keeps us in touch with what is happening locally as well as what is happening around the country and around the world,” Applebaum said. “This will become our history in the years ahead and for future generations.”
Arthur Horwitz, JN publisher/executive editor, said, “Gene Applebaum has been part of the glue that has kept the Detroit Jewish community connected to its past, its future and the larger community that we inhabit. Gene has been a committed and passionate advocate of our independence, of our integrity and of the role we play and continue to play in telling the story of our community in all of its detail and regardless of where people are on the religious or political spectrum.”
Eugene and Marcia also have been extremely active in the field of healthcare, where their vision and generosity are making a profound impact on the future of medicine. Mr. Applebaum was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis twenty-five years ago, and since that time they have contributed greatly toward research on this and related diseases, much at the Mayo Clinic. Today, The Mayo Clinic Eugene And Marcia Applebaum Neuroscience Center is the nation’s premier neuroscience research center.
Says Michael Camilleri, M.D., Executive Dean, Department of Development, Mayo Clinic, “Gene is an inspiration for his courageous battle against multiple sclerosis. Although challenged by MS, this devastating disease will never define him. The Applebaums choose to fight MS through extraordinary generosity to our researchers and physicians who work toward a cure.”
Mr. Applebaum also has been a longtime leading contributor to his alma mater, Wayne State University, which has renamed its pharmacy school the EUGENE APPLEBAUM COLLEGE OF PHARMACY AND HEALTH SCIENCES.
Irvin D. Reid, WSU president emeritus who met Applebaum a month before he became president in 1997, called it an immediate meeting of the minds.
“I thought of Wayne State as a premier urban research university, one that needed to relate to the city of Detroit,” Reid said. “One of the people I would bounce ideas off of was Gene.”
Reid wanted to create a foundation, and Applebaum became its first chair. Together they raised about $1.1 billion, more than $900 million through WSU’s Capital Campaign. “Without Gene, there was no way I could have started that campaign; he’s a man who does not forget where he came from or who helped him to get there,” Reid said.
Other medical institutions the Applebaums have supported include the Hermelin Brain Tumor Center in the Henry Ford Health System, which they co-founded; and the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute. Beaumont Hospital’s Marcia & Eugene Applebaum Surgical Learning Center in Royal Oak is a premier training center for surgeons from around the world, recognized as the first facility of its kind.
The Applebaums also have been active supporters of the arts, and are donors to the Michigan Opera Theatre, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Hall and the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Federation’s Highest Honor
Having benefited from the mentorship of individuals like Max Fisher and leaders of his generation, Mr. Applebaum has devoted much of his energy to guiding others. Beyond his philanthropy, his impact is felt through the countless community leaders and supporters whom he has mentored personally. “Dan Gilbert was my paperboy,” he recounts, “and I took him to his first Federation Fisher meeting.”
Former Federation CEO Robert Aronson is one of those who considers Mr. Applebaum to be a great mentor as well as a close personal friend. He credits Mr. Applebaum for guiding and supporting him throughout much of his career.
“I believe he is a true leader,” he says. “On a daily basis he has to overcome great obstacles, and yet he draws people to him. It’s because of his personality, his integrity as a person, his values and even his sense of humor, and for that reason he is my definition of what a leader is.”
On September 10th, Eugene Applebaum will be given the Fred M. Butzel Award at Federation’s 2013 Annual Meeting. The Butzel Award is Federation’s highest honor and recognizes an individual’s exceptional impact through volunteer leadership and philanthropy.
Nancy Grosfeld, a former Federation President and close friend of the Applebaums, reflects on his tremendous impact on the work of Federation.
“Gene not only is a philanthropist,” she says, “but he also has given important advice and counsel to the leadership of the Federation over the years. We often turn to Gene to get his opinion on specific community issues. He serves as an example for our next generation on how to bring together all the different elements of our community.”
It is clear that Mr. Applebaum is motivated not by awards, but by a deep desire to help others and serve the community. Nevertheless, he is happy for the example that is set.
“This is an important moment for my family,” he says. “For my wife and daughters, but especially for my grandkids, in helping them identify the values that are important.”
Marcia Applebaum agrees. Speaking for the entire family, she says, “We are all so proud of Gene and so thrilled that the community is recognizing him for all the good he’s done.”
Not only his grandchildren, but an entire community has been moved and inspired by the remarkable life and legacy of Eugene Applebaum.
– Harry Kirsbaum, JN Contributing Writer, contributed to this story.