Remembering Joseph Zilber

Word of the passing of real estate developer and philanthropist Joseph Zilber came over the airwaves and Internets today. Few people have ever spoken so eloquently about what needs to happen to make Milwaukee into the truly great city that we know that it can be as did Mr. Zilber. His vision went beyond making huge and very directly effective donations, such as his 2007 gift of $30 million to Marquette University’s law school. Zilber knew that Milwaukee is a city of neighborhoods, and that renewing and improving the neighborhoods is key to to building a thriving city.

My wife pointed out these lines from the Journal Sentinel story on Zilber’s passing:

Zilber had suffered bouts of pneumonia during the past year and spent much of the time at his home in Hawaii.

“But he wanted to come back to Milwaukee,” said Michael P. Mervis, vice president of Zilber Ltd., who announced Zilber’s death Friday.

On Monday Zilber flew back here because he said he wanted to attend a company meeting that’s planned for next week, Mervis said.

Later in the week, he entered the Zilber Hospice in Wauwatosa, which he built in 2004, and was talking with old friends, Mervis said.

Zilber died at the hospice Friday morning.

As she wrote, “This is a guy who lived, breathed, and died Milwaukee.”

True indeed. He grew up on N. 9th Street, an area that is now likely non-existent or within a stone’s throw of I-43. Despite the city likely having destroyed his childhood home with the foolish decision to run the freeway through the heart of so many neighborhoods, Zilber devoted his final years to a quest to revive Milwaukee. I agree with much of what he said in this 2007 interview with WUWM: it’s going to take a great rebuilding of the social infrastructures, the education system, and a revitalization of its complex ethnic makeup. It’s a huge effort, and a huge investment. But there are few things in my life that I believe in more than the possibility of raising Milwaukee to be the shining city I know it can be.

Joseph Zilber saw it, too.

Rest in peace, dear sir. And thank you.


Author: Jason Haas

Jason is an elected member of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, occasionally moonlights as an amateur gardener, and is a proud father of two, or three, depending on how you do the math.