Hundreds of family members, friends, employees and other mourners came to pay their respects to Zilber Ltd. founder Joseph Zilber, at his funeral Tuesday at the Marquette University Memorial Union.
Zilber, a real estate developer and one of Milwaukee’s most prominent philanthropists, died Friday. He was 92.
Zilber’s daughter, Marcy, was one of the speakers at the funeral. She told a story about her father getting pneumonia a year ago. At the hospital, he was asked by the staff, in case he lost consciousness, if he wanted to be resuscitated.
“Absolutely,” Marcy said Zilber told the hospital staff. “I need three more years to do what I’m doing.”
Given his age and condition, the hospital staff asked Zilber what they should do if he fell asleep.
“You wake me up,” Marcy said he told them.
“The (hospital) staff said they had never met anyone quite like him,” she said.
Zilber founded Towne Realty, which is now operated by Zilber Ltd., in 1949. He grew the company from startup into one of the largest real estate development and management firms headquartered in the Midwest. Zilber’s company built thousands of homes in Milwaukee for GIs returning home after World War II. Later, the firm purchased several office buildings in downtown Milwaukee. As the years went on, Zilber kept expanding the company’s scope and its geographic reach. The firm has constructed and purchased apartment buildings, condominium developments, nursing homes, office buildings, industrial buildings, office parks and industrial parks.
In recent years he acquired the former Pabst brewery complex in downtown Milwaukee, which had been vacant for years, and has worked to redevelop it into a mixed-use urban neighborhood. Zilber said he wanted that project to be his legacy to Milwaukee.
In his later years Zilber lived in Hawaii, but still kept a home in Milwaukee and spent parts of the year here. He never retired and remained active with the company, playing a hands-on management role as founder and president.
Zilber was beloved by many of his 250 employees, whom he considered his second family. Several of the company’s top managers have worked for him for decades.
One of those managers is Mike Mervis, who was Zilber’s assistant. Mervis spoke at the funeral on behalf of those employees, and his remarks were filled with emotion.
“We had the best boss in the world,” Mervis said. “He encouraged us to reach our potential. He will always be in our hearts and his principles will guide us along the way.”
“This great adventure that has been his life was long and full,” Mervis said. “How lucky we all were that he took us along with him.”
Zilber was born and raised in Milwaukee. He was married to his wife, Vera, for 63 years. He is survived by his daughters Marcy and Marilyn, two grandchildren and three great grandchildren. He also had a son, James, who passed away previously.
Zilber’s love for his family, his employees and the city of Milwaukee “was beyond measure,” Mervis said.
Zilber donated millions, especially in his later years, to charitable causes in Milwaukee through the Zilber Family Foundation. In 2008 he began a $50 million initiative to rebuild impoverished neighborhoods in Milwaukee, including the neighborhood where he grew up. In 2007 he donated $30 million to the Marquette University Law School and $10 to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for the creation of a school of public health.
Several speakers at Zilber’s funeral made note of his skill and passion for deal making. His charitable contributions were deals with the community, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said.
“His gifts didn’t come without strings attached,” Barrett said. “He wanted everyone in this community to give back as well. Here’s the deal: he is challenging every one of us in this room and in this community to be better human beings. He is also challenging us to be better members of this community.”
The work of Zilber Ltd. and of the Zilber Family Foundation will continue, Mervis said.
“Joe made sure the company he worked so hard to build and the foundation had clear direction for the future,” he said. “Each (Zilber Ltd. employee has) a huge responsibility for the task that lay before us…We have a solemn obligation to finish his work, to rebuild our city.”
Mervis said Zilber left him with a few instructions of things to say after he passed away.
“Remind everybody to get back to work as soon as they can,” Zilber told Mervis. “There’s much to do.”
To learn more about Zilber’s $50 million initiative to save Milwaukee neighborhoods, click here to see a cover story about it from BizTimes Milwaukee in November of 2008.
Read BizTimes Milwaukee executive editor Steve Jagler’s tribute to Zilber here.
BizTimes Milwaukee honored Zilber in 2007 with the Bravo! Entrepreneur Lifetime Achievement Award. Click here to see a video of an interview with Zilber that was played at the award luncheon.