During lunch a couple of months ago, Mike Mervis, vice president of Zilber Ltd., told me that philanthropist Joe Zilber’s health was failing.
Zilber’s organs had begun to shut down at his home in Hawaii, Mervis said.
I immediately replied that it was a shame that Zilber probably would never make it back to Milwaukee again.
Mervis’ eyes opened wide. “He says he’ll be back here to see us in March or April,” Mervis said, shaking his head in both amusement and amazement.
Indeed, Zilber did make that flight back to his beloved Milwaukee on Monday. As his health continued to fail him, he immediately checked into the Zilber Hospice in Wauwatosa, which he built in 2004 to honor his late wife, Vera.
By Friday morning, Zilber had passed away at age 92.
I had the privilege of interviewing Joe Zilber a few times over the years.
As I reflected on those encounters, I remember how humble he was in accepting the Milwaukee Press Club’s Headliner Award on Feb. 14, 2008. He brought the house down when he told the audience something along the lines of, “I’m very happy to win this award. It took me 89 years to do it.”
But in the private conversations on the side, his persona was that of a kind gentleman. A kind gentleman who happened to have built a mammoth fortune on real estate investments over several decades.
Of course, such fortunes are not built by people weak in the knees. I have heard countless stories of how shrewd and even ruthless he could be when it came to negotiating real estate deals.
At one point, Zilber Ltd. owned 10 percent of the buildings in Milwaukee’s downtown.
“He was always a tough negotiator, but he always cut a fair deal,” Mervis said. “For a lot of people, the toughness was overwhelming, because they were not as tough as he was.”
Zilber also was loyal to his inner circle. Most of the captains at his company have been there for decades. He expected much from them, but he rewarded them handsomely in return.
He also took care of them. Zilber Ltd. was way ahead of the curve by offering a robust employee wellness program. He insisted that his employees make time for their families.
In his latter years, those employees were his family.
And he did make that final flight back to Milwaukee.
“Damn right. That’s what made Joe Zilber Joe Zilber. How do describe working for a legend? This is a very sad day,” Mervis said.
Joe Zilber was a Milwaukee original. He was born in Milwaukee and raised in the 2100 block of North Ninth Street in his family’s residence above the family grocery store.
And he made Milwaukee a better place. Rest in peace, my friend.
Funeral services for Joseph Zilber will take place Tuesday, March 23, at 10 a.m. in the Monaghan Ballroom at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.