Mogul and Mentsh: A. Alfred Taubman 1924-2015
A legacy of accomplishment and abundant generosity.
A. Alfred Taubman was an extraordinary entrepreneur whose remarkable vision and exceptional business acumen revolutionized the realm of retail shopping.
He was also a passionate Zionist and staunch supporter of Jewish life and causes in Israel and throughout the world.
Locally, he was a dedicated community benefactor whose generosity changed lives and transformed organizations throughout Metro Detroit and beyond.
He was a champion of education and the pursuit of knowledge and, above all, a devoted husband, father and grandfather.
On Friday evening, April 17, Mr. Taubman died of a heart attack in his Bloomfield Hills home at age 91.
Mr. Taubman was vital and active up until his heart attack, traveling to Puerto Rico last month to celebrate the grand opening of his company’s newest property, the Mall of San Juan, and speaking at the groundbreaking ceremony for the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning in Ann Arbor just two days before he died.
Mr. Taubman was the visionary behind Taubman Centers Inc., which he founded in 1950 under the Taubman Company name. His innovative retail concepts changed consumers’ habits nationwide as the shopping mall became what Forbes magazine referred to as “America’s modern town square.”
Today, Taubman Centers is one of the leading shopping mall development and ownership companies in the country, with 19 regional shopping centers nationwide. The company is run by his sons Robert “Bobby” S. Taubman, who is the firm’s chairman, president and CEO, and William “Bill” S. Taubman, its chief operating officer.
“He loved and embraced life with a smile on his face,” said local businessman and close friend Sidney Forbes. “He deeply loved his family and was very proud of his sons’ leadership in the business.”
Born in 1924 to German-Jewish immigrants Philip and Fannie Taubman, he grew up in Pontiac and later served as an Army Air Corps mapmaker during World War II. He attended the University of Michigan, studying art and architecture, and later took night classes at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield while working as a draftsman at a local architectural firm during the day.
His real estate interests expanded beyond shopping malls to include a consortium to purchase the Irvine Ranch in California, the revitalization of the A&W restaurant franchise and the development of the Riverfront Towers Apartments in Detroit, built with his longtime friend and frequent business partner, Max Fisher. He also dipped his entrepreneurial toe into the sports world as owner of the United States Football League’s Michigan Panthers team in the early 1980s.
Mr. Taubman married the former Reva Kolodney in 1948, and together they raised three children, Gayle, Robert and William. After 28 years, the couple divorced and, in 1982, he married Judith Rounick, his wife of the past 33 years.
Though Mr. Taubman appeared regularly on the Forbes magazine list of billionaires, with a recent net worth estimate of $3.1 billion, when asked what he considered his greatest accomplishment, he invariably named his family.
“He was a wonderful father and grandfather; he had a deep connection to all of us,” said his son, Bobby, who has fond memories of Friday night dinners with his grandparents, parents and siblings.
Jewish identity was paramount to Mr. Taubman. He was an active and devoted member of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield throughout much of his life and a staunch supporter of Jewish organizations in Israel and at home. He took great pride in his heritage and encouraged his children to value their Judaism as well.
“Being Jewish was part of his being,” Bobby said.
His longstanding dedication to local Jewish life is reflected in the A. Alfred Taubman Jewish Community Campus in Oak Park, which includes the Jimmy Prentis Morris Jewish Community Center, the adjacent Jewish Senior Life apartment buildings, a mikvah, two playgrounds and a beautifully landscaped plaza designed to serve as a neighborhood gathering place.
Mr. Taubman’s firm constructed the Oak Park JCC building in 1956, marking more than half a century of his involvement with the Jewish campus and its surrounding community.
Following Max Fisher’s death, Mr. Taubman was known for hosting Federation’s Fisher Meeting (which became the Taubman Meeting), a multigenerational gathering at the core of Federation’s annual fundraising efforts that remains one of the most important and successful Jewish fundraising events in the nation.
Mr. Taubman also served as a respected mentor and trusted adviser to several generations of Jewish community leaders, leaving an indelible legacy with both his vision and his spirit.
“Alfred will be remembered as a titan of philanthropy, modeling leadership of tzedakah throughout the world,” said Phillip Wm. Fisher, son of Max Fisher. “This active leadership was not about just giving, but proactive giving-back.”
Education, Medical Causes
Mr. Taubman’s lifelong love of learning led to his strong support of educational institutions in his community and elsewhere.
“My father was fascinated by the world; he was interested in everything,” Bobby Taubman said. “He instilled that thirst for knowledge, that love of education and learning, in all of us, including his grandchildren.”
His early ties to the University of Michigan as a young architecture student led Mr. Taubman to become a major supporter; his contributions over the years total more than $142 million, making him one of the largest donors in U-M’s history. The capstone of that legacy is the A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute, made possible by a $100 million gift in 2007. His vision for this groundbreaking institution came from a longtime interest in medical research and his belief that it was possible to cure debilitating diseases such as ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Alzheimer’s and cancer.
“Alfred took very seriously the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam — that it is the duty of all of us to ‘heal the world,’” said Dr. Eva Feldman, Taubman Research Institute director and a close friend of Mr. Taubman. “I think it was almost inevitable that he would become interested in medical research as part of his lifelong commitment to helping others … For him, the institute had one singular mission — to find cures for diseases that take such a terrible human toll.”
His vision was to create a creative research community where clinician-scientists could pursue treatments and cures without the constraints of conventional granting mechanisms. He also provided for a Taubman Scholar grant program, including a category for emerging scholars, which has led to more than 50 new clinical trials originated by qualified participants.
“There was little in life that gave Alfred more pleasure than visiting our laboratories and sitting down with his scientists and learning about their research,” Feldman said.
“They were always so impressed by his understanding of their work and how much he wanted to help them move their discoveries out of the laboratory and into clinical trials.”
The 2008 Michigan constitutional amendment that lifted many of the restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, the passage of which Mr. Taubman played a key role, led to the creation of the Consortium for Stem Cell Therapies, a program of the Taubman Research Institute. The consortium has since become a recognized leader in the field, developing one of the first embryonic stem cell lines in the country.
Feldman is currently working with an Israeli physician, a pioneer in stem cell research, on a new treatment for patients with ALS.
“It offers a bold and transformative approach to this disease, which is exactly what Alfred expected of the Taubman Institute,” she said.
Mr. Taubman’s daughter, Gayle Kalisman, serves as co-chair of the Institute’s Leadership Advisory Board.
Other significant gifts from Mr. Taubman to U-M include a $30 million donation to what is now the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, and a subsequent donation to expand the Art and Architecture Building to include the A. Alfred Taubman Wing. Several other campus buildings are named in his honor, including the A. Alfred Taubman Health Care Center, the Taubman Health Sciences Library and the A. Alfred Taubman Galleries at the U-M Museum of Art.
Because Mr. Taubman believed giving of himself was as important as monetary gifts, he was serving as vice chair of a $4 billion fundraising campaign to help the university increase student scholarships, among other goals.
“He was a great man — successful, generous and warm,” said U-M President Mark Schlissel in a statement. “But he also was someone who held all those around him to high standards. He helped drive excellence at Michigan, not just through his philanthropy, but also by the advice he gave to multiple presidents and the fact that he held us to account to get the very most out of everything we did.”
Lawrence Technological University in Southfield also received generous support from Mr. Taubman, a student there in the 1940s.
According to LTU President Virinder K. Moudgil, Mr. Taubman returned frequently to teach classes, sponsor exhibitions and lectures, provide public art on campus, and inspire students and faculty.
He became one of the university’s most generous benefactors, providing the lead gifts for the innovative Taubman Student Services Center and the Taubman Complex for Engineering, Life Sciences and Architecture, which is expected to open next year. In true Taubman style, he augmented his financial gifts by taking an active role in the architecture and design of both buildings.
“Mr. Taubman’s generosity has assured that many future generations of LTU students and scholars will have access to outstanding educations and facilities,” Moudgil said. “We are forever grateful for his kindness, friendship and support.”
Mr. Taubman also contributed $15 million to the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, which was used to create the school’s A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education.
His commitment to higher education extended to the East Coast, where he provided funding for the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions at Brown University in Providence, R.I., and the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School at Harvard University.
A keen art lover and collector, Mr. Taubman shared his passion through his generous support of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). In addition to significant financial gifts, he gave of his time as well. He served as chair of the City of Detroit Arts Commission, which helped protect the DIA’s collection during the city’s financial crisis, and as a longtime member of the DIA board of directors. He also took an active role in the museum’s $170 million renovation and expansion in the early 2000s. In addition, he donated several works from his personal art collection.
“Alfred was one of the DIA’s greatest patrons in its history and supported our museum through major contributions to capital and endowment campaigns,” said DIA Director Graham W.J. Beal, who described Mr. Taubman as “an avid and discerning art collector.”
His love of art led to his acquisition of Sotheby’s auction house. He modernized the company and increased its success. But his ownership led to a low point in his life when he was convicted of conspiring with rival auction house Christie’s to fix commission rates. Despite serving 10 months in minimum-security prison, he always maintained his innocence.
Civil Rights Advocate
Mr. Taubman believed strongly in social justice, a principle he exemplified through his treatment of civil rights activist Rosa Parks. In 2005, after Parks was assaulted in the Detroit home where she was living alone, Mr. Taubman arranged for her to live, rent-free, in the Riverfront Towers Apartments, which his company owned. Together with his friend, Max Fisher, he set up a foundation to provide for the elderly civil rights pioneer, allocating any leftover monies for a school scholarship fund for needy Detroit children.
At the request of his friend, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon Keith, Mr. Taubman commissioned his private plane to fly Parks, who was too frail to use commercial airlines, to Alabama to attend the dedication of a library in her name.
The 10,000-square-foot Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, part of Wayne State University Law School, is another testament to Mr. Taubman’s commitment to human rights. He contributed more than $3 million to fund the center, earmarking a portion of the money to establish the A. Alfred Taubman Endowed Chair in Civil Rights.
Mr. Taubman revealed a candid look at the man behind the legend in his 2007 memoir, Threshold Resistance: The Extraordinary Career of a Luxury Retailing Pioneer. In a 2014 blog posted on the book’s website, he reflected on his 90th birthday and offered readers three of his secrets for a long and healthy life: get a good doctor, avoid as much aggravation as possible, and stay curious and connected to people.
His incredibly accomplished life suggests he followed his own advice, a notion that is confirmed by his son Bobby.
“He made a personal investment in the people and projects he touched,” Bobby said. “The idea of investing in our community was something he taught us in hundreds of ways, and all of us do that. He was a remarkable, incredible father.”
Hundreds of people attended his funeral service, which was held Tuesday at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.
Mr. Taubman is survived by his wife, Judith Taubman; sons and daughters-in-law, Robert and Julie Taubman of Bloomfield Hills, William and Ellen Taubman of Birmingham; daughter and son-in-law, Gayle and Michael Kalisman of New York, N.Y.; grandchildren, Jason Taubman Kalisman, Philip Taubman (Hilary) Kalisman, Alexander Alfred Taubman, Ghislaine “GoGo” Taubman, Theodore Taubman, Sebastian Taubman, Oliver Taubman, Abigail Taubman and Tatiana Dubin; great-grandson, Aaron Falb Kalisman; sister-in-law, Lola Taubman. He is also survived by Judith’s children, Christopher Rounick and Tiffany Dubin.
Mr. Taubman was the devoted son of the late Philip and the late Fannie Taubman. He was predeceased by his former wife and the mother of his children, Reva Kolodney Stocker. He was the brother of the late Goldye and the late Albert Nelson, the late Sam Taubman, the late Lester and the late Shirley Taubman.
Interment was at Clover Hill Park Cemetery. Contributions may be made to A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute,109 Zina Pitcher Place, 5017 A. Alfred Taubman Biomedical Science Research, Ann Arbor, MI, (734) 615-7282, www.taubmaninstitute.org; Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward, Detroit, MI 48202, www.dia.org; College for Creative Studies, 201 E. Kirby, Detroit, MI 48202-4034, www.
collegeforcreativestudies.edu; or Lawrence Technological Institute, 21000 W. 10 Mile Road, Southfield , MI 48075-1058, www.ltu.edu/giving. Arrangements were by Ira Kaufman Chapel.
By Ronelle Grier, Contributing Writer