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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Who are Carl and Ruth J. Shapiro?

Published: October 3, 2008
Section: Features

Freshmen Jeremy Solomons and David Hanno eat at Einstein’s in the Shapiro Campus Center about once a day.

Jeremy lives in North Quad, and Hanno lives in Massel, so the two friends use the SCC as a meeting place to catch up on each other’s day.

“It’s funny,” Solomons said, “I come here so often, but I know absolutely nothing about the Shapiros except that they must have lots of money, because there’s like five other buildings named after them.”

“I bet they’ve donated like, $ 3.8 million to ‘deis,” Hanno said.

As for where the Shapiros made their money, Solomon said his best guess is embezzlement.

“All of those rich people get their money that way,” he explained, “even the Kennedys made their money off of prohibition.”

Hanno said that while he doesn’t know where the university’s largest donor got their money, “I assume that they worked for it.”

“I don’t know, they’re Jewish, right? So maybe they’re doctors or lawyers,” he said. “But I don’t think anyone really knows who they are.”

Hanno and Solomons aren’t the only students who don’t know who the Shapiro’s are. As sophomore Naomi Kling puts it, “no one knows.”

In 1939, Carl Shapiro formed Kay Windsor Inc., a women’s clothing company based in New Bedford, MA. 22 years later, the Shapiros had made a fortune, and established the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation, according to the Foundation’s website.

In 1971, Shapiro sold Kay Windsor Inc. to the Vanity Fair Corporation as part of Vanity Fair’s plan to expand into women’s knitwear. At the time, it was one of the largest women’s clothing companies in the country, making five lines of dresses and women’s sportswear, according to the fashion history website,

After selling his company, Shapiro was director of Vanity Fair Corporation until his retirement in 1976.

Kay Windsor Inc.’s dresses are still popular. On Google, the two types of websites that come up upon searching the company are either press releases about the Shapiros’ philanthropy, or people looking to buy vintage clothing.

While the source of the Shapiros’ money might seem unglamorous to Hanno and Solomons, their contributions are not.

Making their first contribution to the university in 1950, the Shapiros have since donated a total of $80 million dollars, making them Brandeis’ largest donor.

When they donated $25 million in 2000 for the building of the SCC, it was the university’s largest single donation.

Since that time, the only single donations to break that record have come from the Shapiros themselves.

The Shapiros have a total of three buildings to their name on campus, and the university is currently in the process of re-building the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Admissions Center, something Nancy Winship, Executive Director of Development at Brandeis, said was Carl Shapiro’s idea.

“Carl sees his donations not as gifts, but as investments in the future of Brandeis,” said Winship, whose family has been friends with the Shapiros since her childhood.

“They don’t just build buildings, they work very, very hard at it, along with the Brandeis team, and they make sure that those buildings have everything that they need. Whatever Carl and Ruth do, they make sure that it’s done really perfectly, and with the best material.”

For example, when the SCC was being designed, it was Carl Shapiro who decided that the building should face toward the Loop Road. Then, as an added bonus, he offered to pay for the landscaping of the Great Lawn, which at the time was a parking lot. Carl Shapiro also came up with the idea of the block-couches that are in the SCC’s atrium, purposely picking furniture that could be rearranged in order to best suit the student’s needs.Winship said that Carl and Ruth Shapiro visit the SCC about twice a year to make sure it isn’t lacking anything they might need to provide.

On tours of the university, prospective students are told that the Shapiros donated the money on the condition that the design for the building had no 90-degree angles. Winship said that the story is “entirely false,” but that “Carl really cares about the aesthetic designs of his buildings—and the lighting. Carl loves lighting.”

Winship attributed the Shapiros’ generosity, in part, to their close friendship with President Jehuda Reinharz.

The Shapiros chose to donate to Brandeis because, as members of the Jewish community, they wanted to show their faith in the institution, Winship said.

Not only was their first donation given only two years after the university was founded, but Ruth Shapiro has been a member of the Brandeis National Women’s Committee, an organization dedicated to maintaining Brandeis’ library, since 1948.

The Shapiros have also contributed to many organizations in the Boston area, including the Museum of Fine Arts, The Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Beth Israel Hospital.

In fact, the Shapiros declined to comment for the article because so much has been written about them and their contributions to various institutions int he past.

Still, Winship said Brandeis is the family’s “highest priority,” despite the fact that no one in the Shapiro family has attended the university.

“And that just shows you the kind of people they are,” Winship continued. “I’ll tell you, I just love them. In my office, I have a statue of Louis D. Brandeis and two photos of the Shapiros, and that’s it. And it’s because they are some of the most wonderful people you could ever spend an evening with. They are incredibly elegant, but also fun. Carl has a great sense of humor. He could definitely make every student on campus laugh.”

In January, 2003, the university showed its gratitude to the Shapiros by surprising Carl Shapiro with an honorary degree—the university’s highest honor.

Though honorary degrees are usually given on campus at the commencement ceremony each May, the university made an exception of their largest donor, giving him his degree at his home in Palm Beach.

The university has only made this exception once prior, in 1994 for George Burns, a political historian. The honorary degree reads “the innovative initiatives, programs and buildings you have supported will enrich the lives of many generations to come.”

And at 95 and ¾ years old, Carl Shapiro isn’t done giving yet.

“He goes to work every day from eight a.m. until dinner and what does he work on? His whole work is philanthropy,” Winship said.

“And it’s smart philanthropy. I come out of a meeting with him, President Reinharz and Peter B. French, and you just know that he was the smartest person in the room. It’s counterintuitive, but he definitely gets smarter every year he gets older.”

Carl Shapiro joined the university’s Board of Trustees in 1979 and is currently a trustee emeritus. His daughter Rhonda Zinner currently serves on the board and is vice chair of the Board Overseers of the Heller School, David E. Nathan, Director of Development Communications said.

In addition to the Shapiro Science Center, which is currently under construction, and the admissions building which is just getting started, the Shapiro Family Foundation’s executive director, Jean Whitney, said the foundation has also pledged to pay for a building at the Heller School.

“We’re just lucky to have the Shapiros on our side,” Winship said. “Most universities don’t have a Carl and Ruth Shapiro.”

“And I think that people use the Shapiros as an example,” she continued. “Because Carl is so brilliant—and brilliant is the word—people see him investing huge amounts of money in the university and it gives us credibility. If Carl’s doing it, Brandeis has got to be a great place.”