William “Bill” Farber
Family man gave generously to transform the community
William “Bill” Farber was a generous philanthropist, an astute businessman, a devoted husband, father and grandfather, and a loyal friend. He passed away on March 25, 2017, after a valiant battle with a long illness. He was 85.
After retiring from a successful career in the pharmaceutical business, Bill took pleasure in taking the financial rewards he reaped and passing them on to the community in the form of charitable gifts intended to transform the beneficiaries of his generosity, especially if the cause related to education and children.
Bill was born in Detroit to Doris and Sam Farber, who had three children; Bill, Jake and Marsha. Bill, the oldest, exhibited his future entrepreneurial skills at age 14, when he opened an ice cream business “staffed” by neighborhood kids. Sam, a pharmacist, owned Farber Drugs, across the street from Central High School, and Bill was his faithful delivery boy.
After joining the Army and serving four years in Japan, he returned home and attended Wayne State University, where he graduated and became a registered pharmacist. On a blind date, he met Audrey, who was his wife, best friend and most ardent supporter for 62 years. Theirs was a true partnership, and together they traveled the world and enjoyed spending time with family and friends, and most of all, with each other.
When Bill decided to move into the pharmaceutical business, he feared being unsuccessful and unable to take care of his growing family, but he took the leap and invested in Michigan Pharmacal, which thrived under his leadership and business acumen. Audrey was his bookkeeper until he sold the company in 1988.
Always the risk-taker, Bill began buying stock in the struggling Lannett Company, one of the first generic drug manufacturers in country. He purchased it in 1991 and eventually turned the company into a highly successful enterprise.
Of all his successes, and all the buildings, walls and plaques that bear his name, Bill was proudest of the three sons, David, Larry and Jeffrey, who carry on his name and his legacy.
While all his sons have become successful businessmen, they learned the basics from their father as young boys helping out in the family business. There was no advantage to being the boss’ sons; Bill insisted they start from the bottom — mopping floors, taking out the trash and shelving stock.
“My dad taught me I’m not above anyone,” said David, which mirrored Bill’s own attitude about the company he ran. “He ate snacks from the vending machine along with the workers. He would do anything that needed to be done. He wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.”
Business and the money it generated were important to Bill, but only as a means to an end. Money allowed him to achieve his primary goal: taking care of his family. He wanted to provide a nice home and outstanding Jewish and secular educations for his children and, once that was accomplished, his greatest pleasure came from giving his money away to people and organizations that needed his help.
He had no use for luxury cars, designer suits or five-star restaurants; it was people rather than possessions that were important. He drove older cars, refused to fly first-class and met his friends for lunch at casual restaurants. He took great delight in finding bargains at the local dollar store. He took the same attitude with his sons growing up, providing what they needed but not to the point of over-indulgence.
“He wanted us to have enough, but he didn’t want us to have too much,” David said.
Giving away millions of dollars did not change the relationships he had with his family and friends; he always lived frugally and by his own standards of what was important.
Giving Was A Joy
While he spent years as a quiet yet consistent donor to a variety of causes, the sale of Lannett provided him the means to make even more substantial gifts, contributions that would transform the lives of organizations and people within the community and elsewhere.
According to Stacey Deweese, director of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund for Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, the Farbers’ gifts to Federation totaled $45 million, making them among the largest donors in Federation history. Through their work together, Deweese formed a close friendship with Bill, enjoying weekly lunches where they talked about “anything and everything.”
“It was one of the best experiences of my professional life, a once-in-a-career relationship,” Deweese said. “Bill and Audrey’s philanthropy, in large part to Federation’s Centennial Fund, has fundamentally changed our community. It has literally opened the doors for generations to come.”
One of his earliest and proudest major philanthropic achievements was to Akiva Day School, now known as Farber Hebrew Day School. Although Bill was a Reform Jew, he liked the Zionist bent of the school and saw it as a vehicle to attract more Modern Orthodox families to the area. What was originally intended to be a “band-aid” for the old school building turned into an $8 million gift to build a new 69,000 square-foot building that includes state-of-the-art technology, student collaboration hubs, multiple science labs and a variety of other enhancements.
Days before he passed away, Bill went to visit the Farber Hebrew Day School, the place where he began his philanthropic journey.
While Bill was exceedingly generous, he was also extremely careful about the gifts he chose to make. He wanted to be sure an organization was viable and sustainable before he agreed to be a donor. For that reason, he was skeptical when presented with an idea for an art studio and restaurant to be staffed by young adults with special needs under the auspices of Friendship Circle of Michigan.
Motivated by son David and his wife, Nanci, longtime Friendship Circle supporters, and his faith in the organization’s leaders, Rabbi Levi and Bassie Shemtov, Bill agreed to fund what is now the Farber Soul Center and Soul Cafe in West Bloomfield. Once the center opened, Bill took great pleasure in admiring the artwork in the gallery and meeting friends in the cafe.
“It became one of his favorite places to hang out,” David said.
His favorite menu item, blintzes, was renamed “Billintzes” in his honor.
“Bill was a frequent visitor to the center that carried his name,” Levi Shemtov said. “He loved engaging with the people whose lives he transformed, and we loved watching him enjoy the well-deserved nachas [joy].”
Family, Friends and Fun
While Bill took his business life seriously, he also had a wonderful sense of humor, a dry wit that reflected his unique perspective on the world around him. Lunches with his friends were filled with nonstop laughter.
“The man was a lot of fun to be around and he was a great storyteller,” said Loss, a close friend and confidante.
“He was like a brother to me,” said Harold Gottlieb of Birmingham, a friend since teen years. “He was giving, not just of money, but of love and warmth. He didn’t give for recognition but because it made him feel good.”
Gottlieb, also philanthropic, had fun collaborating with Bill on a number of private philanthropic projects, which they did quietly and anonymously.
Bill’s grandchildren were a great source of pride and joy for Bill. One of his most fulfilling moments occurred in the last weeks of his life when his granddaughter Channa and her fiance traveled from Sweden for a wedding blessing ceremony.
“He was so proud and happy,” said Larry, Channa’s father.
The Farbers gave nearly $10 million to Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills in several phases — first to create the William and Audrey Farber Family IDEA Lab, built in 2014, and then to renovate most of the interior of the school into a 21st-century learning center where students could learn amid collaboration and creativity.
The Farbers have generously supported Tamarack Camps over the years, including the Audrey and William Farber Family Village and the newest initiative, the Farber Farm.
“The recent gift to launch the farm will help our camp community discover firsthand the true meaning of tikkun olam and the important role each of us has in stewarding our precious environment,” said Steve Engel, Tamarack Camps CEO.
In Israel, Bill’s passion for education extended to his support of an educational program for Israeli soldiers: the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) Formal Education Program, which allows IDF soldiers to receive their high school completion certificates during their military service.
“Providing these educational opportunities will have an everlasting impact on the lives of many brave, young heroes and on the future of our Jewish homeland,” said Paula Lebowitz, development director for the Michigan FIDF Chapter.
Grandson Justin Farber, son of David and Nanci, just completed his stint as a Lone Soldier in the IDF. In November, he was honored at the local FIDF gala dinner and is now back in Michigan.
The long list of organizations the Farbers have helped to transform includes the PJ Library, a program that provides books to children and brings young families together; Michigan State University Hillel; Opening the Doors, a special education program of Federation; the Lifelinks program of Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy; Jewish Senior Life; Hillel of Metro Detroit; Temple Israel; The Well; and the Jewish Ensemble Theatre (JET), among others.
“He wanted to make transformational gifts while he was alive,” said daughter-in-law Nanci Farber. “He made a huge impact in a short amount of time by design.”
Although most of Bill’s donations were made to Jewish projects and organizations, he supported secular causes as well. Some of these include the Alzheimer’s Association, Starfish Family Services, the Empowerment Plan in Detroit and a new pet care program at the Haven shelter for victims of domestic violence.
Bill Farber is survived by his beloved wife of 62 years, Audrey; cherished children, Larry (Barbara), David (Nanci) and Jeffrey (Jennifer); devoted grandchildren, Channa Farber, Noah Farber, Adina Farber, Amanda Farber, Justin Farber, Hailey Farber, Mackenzie Morton, Alexis Morton, Jacob Farber and Jessica Farber; dear brother and sister, Gerald “Jake” Farber and Marsha Berniker. He will also be missed by his many loving nieces, nephews, cousins and a world of friends.
Contributions in Bill Farber’s memory may be directed to Farber Soul Center, c/o Friendship Circle, Meer Family Friendship Center, 6892 W. Maple Road, West Bloomfield, MI 48322, (248)788-7878, www.friendshipcircle.org; or Tamarack Camps, Farber Farm, 6735 Telegraph Road #380, Bloomfield Hills, MI 48301, (248) 952-9110, www.tamarackcamps.com/tributes/; or Farber Hebrew Day School, 21100 12 Mile Road, Southfield, MI 48076, (248) 386-1627, www.farberhds.org; or Hillel Day School, 32200 Middlebelt Road, Farmington Hills, MI 48334, (248) 851-3220, www.hillelday.org; or Empowerment Plan Detroit, 1401 Vermont St., Detroit, MI 48216, www.empowermentplan.org.