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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Ruth Shapiro, key benefactor who transformed campus, died at 95

Published: October 26, 2012
Section: Front Page, News

Ruth Shapiro, who through philanthropic gifts with her husband Carl, transformed the university’s campus and identity under former President Jehuda Reinharz, died on Oct. 14 in Boston surrounded by her family. She was 95.

Married for 73 years, the Shapiros, neither of whom attended Brandeis, made their first gift, of $10, to the university in 1950. After accumulating a fortune by manufacturing women’s apparel in a New Bedford factory, the couple established the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Foundation in 1961.

In the coming decades, they would donate millions to Boston’s leading educational, medical and cultural institutions, including, in 2000 the largest gift in Brandeis University’s history—$22 million to build the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Campus Center, completed in September 2002. They also donated funds to build the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Admissions Center, completed in October 2009 and the Carl J. Shapiro Science Center, completed in summer 2009.

Senior Vice President for Institutional Advancement Nancy Winship recalled Ruth Shapiro’s elegance and generosity.

“She was a woman of such elegance and taste, understated but always exquisite in a quiet way,” Winship said. “That was true of her homes and that was true of the way she looked at the interior of buildings here.”

A resident of Boston and Palm Beach, Fla., and a 1937 graduate of Wellesley College, Ruth Shapiro frequently talked with her husband over the details of architecture and design of the buildings they donated to Brandeis. Born to parents George and Dorothy in Chelsea in 1917 as Ruth Gordon, she majored in music at Wellesley and met Carl on Nantasket Beach in Hull in the late 1930s, according to The Boston Globe.

Former President Jehuda Reinharz, under whose tenure the Shapiros made their largest donations, praised the family’s deep commitment to philanthropy.

“We have totally transformed the center of the campus thanks to the contributions of the Shapiro family,” Reinharz said. “Carl always consulted with Ruth. Ruth was a very quiet, modest lady but also has a lot of steel in her.”

Before the Shapiros built the new campus center, a parking lot filled the space of the Great Lawn. Winship said that Carl was insistent on where the main entrance of the building face, rejecting original plans so that it could open instead to a large green lawn in front.

“A lot of what you see in [those] three buildings is not just the work of the architects,” Reinharz said, noting the attention to detail Carl gave to each of the buildings bearing the couple’s name.

When architects and administrators used to discuss building dimensions and attempt to complete calculations on paper, Carl would beat them to the final answer by doing the math in his head, Winship said.

Winship also remembered Ruth Shapiro’s thoughtfulness and passion for taking care of her family. “She was beautiful. She was extremely smart. Totally devoted to family,” Winship said.

When it came to fundraising, her kindness and respect for all people helped a great deal, she added: “She understood fundraising and she treated fundraisers at whatever level as important people. She knew how important fundraising was.”

Along with the three large buildings in the center of the campus, the couple also donated the the Carl Shapiro Chair in International Finance, the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Center for Library and Technology and Journals, and the Zinner Forum at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management.

President Fred Lawrence mourned the loss and expressed gratitude for the generosity of the Shapiro family to Brandeis.

“On this sad day when we mourn the passing of Ruth Shapiro, we also celebrate a life dedicated to helping others,” Lawrence told BrandeisNOW. “Carl and Ruth Shapiro have been instrumental in helping Brandeis become the institution that our founders envisioned in 1948. May her memory ever be a blessing.”

It was Brandeis’ connection to the Jewish community that drew the Shapiros to support the university.

“The reason that they came to Brandeis was because of its Jewish roots,” Winship said. “There’s the particular that was Judaism, and then there were universal values that were important to them.”

In Boston, the Shapiros have supported Harvard Medical School, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston Medical Center, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Institute for Contemporary Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of Science, Children’s Museum and WGBH. In Florida, their philanthropy has benefited the Norton Museum of Arts, Palm Beach Opera and Kravis Center for the Performing Arts.

In addition to her husband, Ruth Shapiro leaves her daughters, Rhonda Zinner who serves on the Brandeis Board of Trustees, Ellen Jaffe and Linda Waintrup; her three three sons-in-law, Michael Zinner, Robert Jaffe and Daniel Waintrup; seven grandchildren, Jennifer, Jonathan, Steven, Michael, Andrew, Samantha and Kimberly; six great grandchildren and her brother Roger. She was predeceased by her sister, Amy.

Rhonda Zinner told The Boston Globe that the values which built the family’s foundation were instilled from their youth.

“The kitchen table in our home became the family foundation’s boardroom,” Zinner said in a statement to The Globe. “That’s where my parents decided how and where they could make the greatest impact on the lives of others. My sisters and I were blessed to be raised by a father and mother whose values taught us the importance of doing all you can to try and make a difference.”