The Desire To Give Back

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Eugene Applebaum’s generous role leads to Butzel Award.

Eugene Applebaum
Eugene Applebaum

From the Jewish community campus in West Bloomfield, to Wayne State University, to Henry Ford and Beaumont hospitals and many other institutions, it’s hard to miss the generosity of Eugene Applebaum.

The Bloomfield Hills philanthropist who sold his chain of pharmacies to do the work he really wanted to do — give back — will receive the Fred M. Butzel Memorial Award at the combined annual meeting of the Jewish Federation and United Jewish Foundation of Metropolitan Detroit on Sept. 10. The Butzel Award is Federation’s highest honor and recognizes an individual’s exceptional impact through volunteer leadership and philanthropy.

Early Impressions
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 Society Camp for just three dollars a week.

As they approach the JCC, 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 who gave back to the community,” she tells him.

The experience has a profound impact, 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.

Eugene and Marcia Applebaum
Eugene and Marcia Applebaum

Decades later, Applebaum, then 76, will endow a village at the same camp, now known as Tamarack Camps, which continues to provide scholarships to thousands of children who otherwise would not have the chance to spend a summer there. Visiting camp in Ortonville one day, he sees a young boy wearing a T-shirt bearing the words Applebaum Village. The experience is a powerful, emotional reminder of how far he has come, and of the pledge he has kept to help others.

“As a Jewish person, we are instructed by the Torah to give tzedakah to the Jewish people, and I feel a great responsibility to do this,” he said. “I want to share the success I’ve had with the Jewish people.”

Making Of A Leader
Joseph and Minnie Applebaum provided their son with a strong, 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 Israeli Prime Minister 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, 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.

Close friend Sidney Forbes of Bloomfield Hills felt Applebaum’s influence.

“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 said. “Gene has always been that way. He’s always had a great nature and smile on his face.

“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,” Forbes said.

“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.”

Family Values
Applebaum met and married his wife, Marcia, in 1961, and since then they have been together for more than 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, who lives in New York City, and Pamela of Bloomfield Hills, and four grandchildren. Marcia says it has been important 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 drugstores 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 is a phenomenal role model,” Pamela said. “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 agreed.

In 1988, Eugene Applebaum, seated, surrounded by other local Jewish leaders Joel Tauber, Al Taubman and Max Fisher
In 1988, Eugene Applebaum, seated, surrounded by other local Jewish leaders Joel Tauber, Al Taubman and Max Fisher

“One of the most important things he’s taught us is to give back, 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,” she said. “That’s what I carry around with me and what I’ve learned from my father.”

Life Of Tikkun Olam
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, he rapidly expanded the business and, in 1974, he brought together six drugstores in Metro Detroit to form Arbor Drugs Inc.

The growing drugstore chain was known for its exceptional quality and outstanding employees. Arbor was named Drug Store News’ Regional Chain of the Year multiple times, and Applebaum himself was acknowledged as a CEO of the Year by Financial World Magazine.

After 35 years running one of the largest and most successful drugstore chains in the region, Applebaum sold the business to national pharmacy retailer, CVS. He then focused his energy on heading Arbor Investments Group, a real estate and financial investment company.

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.

In The Community
The Applebaums have been longstanding pillars of the local Jewish community and major donors to Federation; Eugene serves on its board.

In 1999, the Applebaums announced the largest capital gift up to that time in Metro Detroit’s Jewish community history. The gift of at least $5 million, through Federation’s Millennium Campaign, expanded and beautified the 195-acre Eugene and Marcia Applebaum Jewish Community Campus in West Bloomfield.

One of the most special endowments he has created is Tamarack Camps’ 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 Yavne, Israel; formed the Eugene and Marcia Applebaum Beth Hayeled Building and Jewish Parenting Center at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield; 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 honorary chair of the Detroit Jewish News Foundation.

“The Jewish News 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.”

The Applebaums 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. Eugene Applebaum was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 25 years ago and, since then, they have contributed greatly toward research on this and related diseases, much at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Today, the Mayo Clinic’s Eugene And Marcia Applebaum Neuroscience Center is the nation’s premier neuroscience research center.

“Gene is an inspiration for his courageous battle against multiple sclerosis,” said Michael Camilleri, M.D., executive dean, Department of Development, Mayo Clinic. “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.”

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 needs 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.

“Gene sees that he owes the city of Detroit and Wayne State, his alma mater; he’s a man who does not forget where he came from or who helped him to get there,” Reid said.

The Applebaums have supported other medical institutions including 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. With an additional gift, the learning center will be expanded to become the Marcia and Eugene Applebaum Simulation Learning Institute, which will provide training for a wider array of health professionals, not just surgeons, said Margaret Casey, Beaumont Foundation president.

“He and Marcia both are philanthropists at heart, he believes in giving back to the community,” she said. “When you talk to Gene, he talks very much about his roots in Detroit, and how much the Metro Detroit community means to him, and he wants to be part of sustaining it and [having it] become more than it already is.”

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.

A True Leader
Having benefited from the mentorship of individuals like Max Fisher and leaders of his generation, Applebaum has devoted much of his energy to guiding others. Beyond his philanthropy, his impact is felt through the countless community leaders and supporters he has mentored personally.

“Dan Gilbert was my paperboy,” he said. “I took him to his first Federation Fisher [philanthropy] meeting.”

Former Federation CEO Robert Aronson considers Applebaum a great mentor as well as a close personal friend. He credits Applebaum for guiding and supporting him throughout much of his career.

“I believe he is a true leader,” Aronson said. “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 — for that reason, he is my definition of what a leader is.”

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 said, “but he has also 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 Applebaum is motivated not by awards like the Butzel, 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, for my wife and daughters, but especially for my grandkids, in helping them identify the values that are important,” Applebaum said.

Marcia Applebaum agrees. Speaking for the entire family, she said, “We are all so proud of Gene and so thrilled that the community is recognizing him for all the good he’s done.” 

By Harry Kirsbaum, Contributing Writer and Ted Cohen, marketing director, Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, who contributed to this report. 
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