Eugene Applebaum, a man known as much for his business acumen and philanthropy as his positive attitude and perpetual smile, died Dec. 15, 2017, at his home in Bloomfield Hills. He was 81.
Born into a family of modest means, the native Detroiter was an entrepreneur who grew his first drug store into Arbor Drugs Inc., the eighth largest drug store chain in the country. Along the way, giving back to the community was always a tandem goal.
And, as he was mentored by such giants as businessmen and philanthropists Max Fisher and Alfred Taubman, Applebaum, in turn, mentored many future leaders of today’s Jewish community.
Though focused on business and philanthropy, he chose to leave them behind to be present for his family at the end of a work day.
“It’s a good Horatio Alger story — somebody who started with one drug store and ended up with a
— Eugene Applebaum
Eugene Applebaum was born Nov. 16, 1936, the second son of Joseph, an ardent Zionist, and Minnie Belkin Applebaum, who maintained a traditional Jewish home. His father was from Zhitomir, a large city in Russia, and his mother came from Horodok, a small village.
“They were loving parents. They talked about Judaism and they talked about philanthropy, tzedakah, and they set proper goals for me to reach,” Applebaum recalled in an oral history conducted in 2004 for the Jewish Federation’s Leonard N. Simons Jewish Community Archives. “Whatever I did that was right, they were just a positive influence, a very positive influence.”
His daughters, Pamela and Lisa, said their father loved a good story — and he loved a good story about himself: “When our father was a boy, his mother held him up to the mirror and said, ‘You are the Great Eugene.’ That became a part of him, sustained him and gave him great confidence. For his entire life, he never passed a mirror without smiling.”
Motivated by his father’s interest in Yiddish, Applebaum and good friend Eugene Driker set up the Applebaum Driker Theater at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass.
His father’s love of Israel sparked an incident Applebaum remembers vividly from childhood. In 1948, around the time Israel gained statehood, he and his mother walked many blocks from their home on Broad Street (near Dexter) to catch a glimpse of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister.
“The city of Detroit and Wayne State University had no greater champion than Eugene Applebaum; nor had I a greater friend.”
— Dr. Irvin Reid, WSU president emeritus
“Hundreds of thousands of people were on the street; Ben-Gurion was passing in a convertible. That was all part of the solidarity of the neighborhood we all lived in … It was a very big event,” he recalled in the oral history.
As a boy, Applebaum attended the Fresh Air Society day camp for three years as a scholarship student, with his parents paying $3 a week rather than the full $21. He really enjoyed camp and went, also on scholarship, to Fresh Air’s overnight Camp Tamarack.
“Camp was very personal to Eugene,” said Steve Engel, Tamarack Camps executive director. “Eugene called his time at camp some of the best days of his youth. The Applebaum family has supported Tamarack Camps for many years. Most recently, in 2016, the Applebaum family dedicated a new Applebaum Village to celebrate Eugene’s legacy.”
Although Applebaum didn’t know it then, many of his childhood friends would remain friends for life, also growing into leadership roles in the Jewish community and becoming major philanthropists as well.
For example, in kindergarten at Winterhalter Elementary School, he met David Hermelin, one of his closest lifelong friends. At Durfee and Central High School, he became good friends with Sidney Forbes and Arthur Lieberman, among many others.
“Our parents were friends. We grew up together in the Dexter area. He loved being around people; he was very outgoing,” said Lieberman, a doctor who lives in Birmingham. He introduced Applebaum to his wife, Marcia.
“We all came from modest means,” said Forbes of Bloomfield Hills, a luxury mall developer and philanthropist. “Look, he was a hard worker, as I was; we didn’t know where life was going to take us. We didn’t know how life would unwind.”
“When I think of Gene, I will smile and think what a great father, husband, friend he was. The world needs more Gene Applebaums.” — Sidney Forbes
Applebaum decided to follow his older brother, Leonard, and become a pharmacist.
“I was thinking at first of going into law, but my parents convinced me that I could always do law after I finished pharmacy,” he said in his oral history. “Pharmacy was a more guaranteed profession where you could make a guaranteed income and you could get a job.
“It was a five-year class. I started in 1955 and graduated in 1960. I worked three years for an independent drug store, Merrill Drug at Puritan and Greenfield, for Sam Perlstein, a very nice man, a very smart man. Then I opened Civic Drugs [in 1963], which was at Michigan and Greenfield.”
From then on, he continued opening stores. In 1974, all the stores were renamed Arbor Drugs. From 1974-1986, he went public with 50 stores under the Arbor Drugs Inc. umbrella.
The growing drugstore chain was known for its exceptional quality and outstanding employees, many of whom would eventually take stock in the company as a reflection of their confidence and pride in the business. Arbor was named by Drug Store News as “Regional Chain of the Year” multiple times, and Applebaum was acknowledged as a “CEO of the Year” by Financial World magazine.
When Applebaum sold the chain in March 1998 to CVS Corp. for $1.48 billion, he had 208 stores.
“I loved what I did. I loved being involved,” he said in the oral history. “I chose all the Arbor locations; I signed every one of the leases. At the end, we had 9,000 employees. I never had a layoff … We kept growing and we built up a wonderful organization.
“It’s almost a classic story of rags to riches, so to speak,” Applebaum said. “It’s a good Horatio Alger story — somebody who started with one drug store and ended up with a monster company. CVS wanted desperately to come into Michigan and, really, I controlled Michigan at that time with a 50 percent market share, and the only way they could bust in was to buy somebody like me.
“It was a very exciting time; I had a wonderful ride, but I’m glad I sold it at that time. As it turned out, it was a very smart time to sell it.”
Philanthropy & Leadership
Following the sale, Applebaum was able to focus more time on philanthropy in the Jewish and general communities, much of it focused on healthcare, education, the arts and giving back to the Jewish community that had given him so much.
Applebaum said it best himself: “Philanthropy is part and parcel of life. First you take care of your family, then your community. Then you help the nation and the world. This is more than an obligation. It is a privilege.”
Beneficiaries of Eugene and Marcia Applebaum’s decades-long legacy of support have included WSU, University of Michigan and its entrepreneurial programs, the Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Michigan Opera Theatre, Beaumont Health, the Mayo Clinic and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, Tamarack Camps and many more.
They made a $5 million gift to his alma mater, Wayne State University. The donation helped fund construction of the Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences building, which opened in 2002.
“I enjoyed going to Wayne; it was an important place for an education for people who couldn’t afford a lot of things, but they gave you a great education in the city of Detroit, and I think it is still a major jewel in Detroit,” he said in his oral history.
“When the opportunity came, when they were looking to get a better pharmacy college, I became part of it through President Irvin Reid.”
Reid, president emeritus, now holds the Eugene Applebaum Chair in Community Engagement at WSU.
“The city of Detroit and Wayne State University had no greater champion than Eugene Applebaum; nor had I a greater friend,” Reid told the JN. “I learned so much from him, both about the university that I had come to lead and about the city that was his home. Throughout his lifetime, he never lost the love of his alma mater or his home city.
“He wanted most of all for the university to do whatever was possible to make Detroit a great place for everyone. He loved this city. Enabling the education of young people of the university and the city will stand out among his greatest legacies. He wanted all to come here to the campus and enjoy its assets, many of which he created.
“The university’s Forum On Contemporary Issues In Society (FOCIS) lecture series grew out of his vision that the university needed to bring people together in dialogue. He wanted influential people to come to the university so the students and citizens of the city could be engaged with their ideas. And he loved coming to meet with them ahead of their lectures and pepper them with questions.”
In the Jewish community, Applebaum was able to fulfill a childhood self-prophecy.
One day in 1947, he was riding down Woodward Avenue with his mother and noticed Aaron DeRoy’s name on the Jewish Community Center. He asked his mother, “Why is his name on the building?” She explained Mr. DeRoy was a generous Jewish man who gave back to his community. He said, “Someday I will be a nice Jewish man who will give to my community.”
Robert Aronson, former CEO of the Jewish Federation and current senior development adviser, marvels at how Applebaum set his sights so young on the future.
“What a big thinker he was,” said Aronson, who became a close friend to Applebaum and considered him a mentor. “His first thought was always giving back.”
Aronson, also philanthropic adviser to the family, secured the gift in 1999 from Eugene and Marcia Applebaum that became the largest capital gift in the history of the Jewish community through Federation’s Millennium Campaign for Detroit’s Jewish Future. The donation expanded and beautified the 195-acre West Bloomfield Jewish Community Campus, renamed after the Applebaums.
A lifetime member of the Federation Board of Governors, Applebaum received Federation’s highest honor, the Fred M. Butzel Award, in 2013.
He also created the Eugene and Marcia Applebaum Beth Hayeled Building and Jewish Parenting Center at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield. He was a member of the Taubman Institute Advisory Board and served as an honorary chair of the Foundations’ Board of Advisers for the Detroit Jewish News Foundation.
“Gene was a special friend of the Jewish News and one of my guiding lights in the creation of the independent, nonprofit Detroit Jewish News Foundation,” said Arthur Horwitz, JN publisher and president, DJN Foundation. “He retained a deep appreciation for the vision and service of community leaders who preceded him and sought to honor and build upon their efforts.
“He embraced and defended the role of the Jewish News as a credible, independent source of information and valued its role in connecting myriad segments of the community to each other. I will miss his wise advice, sharp wit and unwavering encouragement.”
Eugene Applebaum was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 50 and battled the disease with an unstoppable positive attitude, amazing sense of humor, and the love and support of family and friends for 31 years.
Already active in the field of healthcare, after his diagnosis he and Marcia channeled many gifts toward medical research on multiple sclerosis and related diseases. The Mayo Clinic Eugene and Marcia Applebaum Neuroscience Center is the nation’s top neuroscience research center.
In the Henry Ford Health System, he and Marcia co-founded the Hermelin Brain Tumor Center. And they provided significant support to establish the Applebaum Simulation Learning Institute at Beaumont Hospital-Royal Oak.
“I am heartbroken over the passing of Gene Applebaum, who I have known for nearly 20 years,” said Margaret Cooney Casey, senior vice president, Beaumont Health, and president, Beaumont Health Foundation. “He was a lovely, kind, charming and brilliant man, always willing to mentor and assist others in the business and philanthropic communities. Gene, as a trained pharmacist and successful businessman, highly valued both health care and education.
“He also co-chaired Beaumont’s comprehensive campaign that raised more than $200 million for Beaumont Health System, completed in 2011. Gene was a member of the Beaumont Health Foundation Board and past Beaumont Health Trustee. He will be sorely missed by many in our community who so admired and loved him.”
In Israel, he was co-founder of the Applebaum-Hermelin-Tauber Child Development Center in Yavne and established the Eugene and Marcia Applebaum Professorial Chair at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.
Family & Friends
Though he was active in business and philanthropy, he was able to leave all that behind when he was with his family and friends.
His family came first.
“We knew we were lucky — Dad had a kind of magic about him,” Pamela and Lisa Applebaum said about their father. “He was happy, kind and nurturing, soft and tough, always a mentsh. He was loveable, likeable, approachable — an everyday guy.”
Pamela said, “He was a phenomenal role model. 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 said, “One of the most important things he taught us is to give back, and how much of a difference it can make in the lives of others. I carry my dad’s values around with me.”
In remarks from the sisters offered at the funeral officiated by Rabbi Joseph Krakoff of the Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy Network, they said, “There were countless random acts of kindness. He did so much that he never shared publicly or told us about. Whenever someone shared a ‘Gene’ story with us, and we told him about it, his eyes would twinkle, knowing that he had changed someone’s life.”
Local businessman, entrepreneur and philanthropist Dan Gilbert agrees.
“Gene Applebaum was many things. Family man. Entrepreneur. Community leader. But what impressed me most about Gene was how he treated people. He greeted his newspaper boy (and I was one of them) with the same friendly warmth that he would greet senators or CEOs,” Gilbert said.
“He didn’t care who you were or where you came from; he knew who he was and none of the success and wealth he achieved was going to change him.
“Gene was a friend, partner and mentor. I am going to miss him and will always remember that big authentic smile that lit up any room he was in.”
Eugene Applebaum’s passion, humor, determination and positive mindset, especially in facing his MS, have left lasting impressions on his lifelong friends as well.
“Gene has been fighting for so long with such dignity; you can take life lessons from him,” said Brian Hermelin, son of Doreen and the late David Hermelin. “He didn’t let MS keep him home or down; he was connected and engaged with everybody. At events, you’d know Gene would be there. He wanted to be out and be seen. He was something else. He was heroic in that battle.”
Though the Applebaum and Hermelin families have a close, lifelong friendship, Brian says his relationship with Eugene grew when his father, David, died at age 63.
“That’s a big loss,” Brian said. “I was a young man embarking on a business career. When my dad died, Gene called every week or two. It wasn’t just about business, but he told me stories about my dad that only a friend going way back could tell. They were great to hear, and he loved to tell them. He would crack himself up.
“He was a touchstone to my dad as much as I might be one to him. He told me he missed him every day. Now, Gene will be missed.”
New York businessman and philanthropist Michael Steinhardt (chair of the JN board) knew Applebaum through Areivim (Jewish responsibility), a small group of mega-philanthropists pulled together by Robert Aronson to collaborate on charitable giving. Both families also are very involved with the American Friends of the Israel Museum.
“Gene Applebaum was a man whose sweetness showed in his face. Whenever I saw him, I came away with the feeling of being with an ennobled soul,” Steinhardt said.
Childhood friend Art Lieberman of Birmingham and Sidney Forbes of Bloomfield Hills each met with Applebaum about once a week for many years. They loved his humor and his zest for life.
“Gene was very optimistic,” Lieberman said. “He always loved a great joke and liked a good laugh. Optimistic is a good word for Gene. He dealt with MS for 30 years, but never let it hold him back. He will be greatly missed.
“And he so loved his children and grandchildren — and his wife. Marcia was very kind and caring to him. They had a great marriage.”
Forbes met him nearly every Friday for a long, rambling lunch — at first at Franklin Hills Country Club and then at the Applebaums’ home.
“He was really a man of courage. He never gave up and he had a tremendous zest for life,” Forbes said. “When I think of him, he always had a tremendous smile on his face. When he was diagnosed with MS, he continued living his life in a very positive way, always looking forward to the future. That was the type of person he was.”
When it became difficult for Applebaum to speak, Forbes said they still communicated about everything — life, their families, the future. He said they laughed a lot.
“He was so proud of his daughters and his grandchildren. And Marcia was his rock and the love of his life. He was a terrific guy with a big, great heart. He was my best friend.
“When I think of Gene on Fridays, I will smile and tell him I love him. I will smile and think what a great father, husband, friend he was. The world needs more Gene Applebaums.”
Eugene Applebaum was the beloved husband for 56 years of Marcia Applebaum; cherished father of Lisa Applebaum and Pamela Applebaum (Gaal Karp); adoring Papa of Mia and Sky Haddad, Rebecca and Molly Applebaum Wyett. He is also survived by Gaal’s son, Blayze Karp. He was the dear brother of Leonard (Beverly) Applebaum; brother-in-law of Alice and Ronald Turett; and devoted son of the late Joseph and the late Minnie Applebaum. He is also survived by nieces, nephews, and devoted caregivers, Ken Smith and Wojciech Kostrubiec.
Rabbis Harold Loss and Joseph Krakoff officiated. Interment was at Clover Hill Park Cemetery. Arrangements by Ira Kaufman Chapel.
For those wishing to honor the memory of Eugene Applebaum:
Beaumont Health Foundation
Eugene Applebaum Nursing Education and Patient Care Fund-Beaumont Hospital
P.O. Box 5802
Troy, MI 48007-5802
Brigham and Women’s Hospital
Marcia and Eugene Applebaum Fund
in support of the Partners
Multiple Sclerosis Center
75 Francis St.
Boston, MA 02115
Marcia and Eugene Applebaum Endowed Fund for Research Related
to Multiple Sclerosis
200 First St. SW
Rochester, MN 55905
Eugene Applebaum Tamarack Scholarship Fund for Applebaum Village
6735 Telegraph Road, #380
Bloomfield Hills, MI 48301
Wayne State University
Eugene Applebaum College
of Pharmacy and Health Sciences
5475 Woodward Ave.
Detroit, MI 48202