The couple lived a middle-class life in Great Neck, and when they retired, they moved to a small one-bedroom apartment in a San Diego suburb.
But while Dr. Howard and Lottie Marcus lived economically, in death they were extravagant, leaving Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) what might be the single largest charitable gift in Israel’s history.
The couple left the university $400 million. The money will establish a permanent endowment for the university that is expected to yield roughly $20 million a year, more than doubling the size of its current endowment.
“To our knowledge, we have not been able to find any gift to any institution in the history of Israel that comes anywhere close to this,” said Doron Krakow, executive vice president of American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (AABGU).
It’s certainly the biggest gift BGU has ever received, by a power of 10. “The single biggest gift before this was $20 million,” Krakow said. “We’ve moved up in class.”
Ten percent of the funds will be earmarked for BGU’s Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research. BGU is a pioneer in that field of research, including developing innovations on drip irrigation, reuse and recycling of greywater and wastewater and the development of technology for growing algae. “They’ve had a hand in all the significant breakthroughs,” Krakow said.
The rest of the money can be used at the university president’s discretion.
“Howard and Lottie grew very close to the last two presidents of BGU, and they came to believe that the president knows best,” Krakow said.
Howard and Lottie Marcus both lost nearly all of their families in the Holocaust. They met after the war in New York, where Lottie was working as a secretary on Wall Street and Howard was building up his dental practice, according to a news release from AABGU announcing the bequest.
Lottie became friends with the well-known investor Benjamin Graham, a mentor to Warren Buffett. Graham introduced Buffett to the couple, who invested most of their savings in the promising investor’s firm, which later became Berkshire Hathaway.
“They parked their nest egg with Warren Buffett in the early 1960s and never sold a share of stock,” said Krakow, who became friendly with the couple when he began working for AABGU just under a decade ago.
“When they had this miraculous success, it was then that they decided that they were not going to tap into it in their lifetime,” he added. “They had in their minds that they were going to do good with it.”
So they never touched it, he said. “Howard was a dentist and they lived a nice middle-class life, but that’s all. They didn’t indulge themselves, but they lived a life of great contentment.”
Krakow described the couple as warm and soft spoken. “In their own way they made me feel like family. They were like your grandparents. They’re the kind of people who, when they know you’re coming to visit, are waiting for you in the parking lot and walk you to your car when you leave.”
The Marcuses became involved with BGU in 1997 after meeting Philip Gomperts, AABGU’s southwest regional director. They felt BGU’s work in desalination and desert farming was of vital importance. “They believed that peace could come to the Middle East if water scarcity could be addressed,” Gomperts said in the release.
They left nearly their entire estate to BGU, a move that Krakow called “very unusual.” But then again, he said, the Marcuses’ “entire lives were defined by having defied expectations.”
“They defied the expectations regarding their [Holocaust] survival," he said. "They defied expectations by establishing themselves as refugee immigrants. They defied expectations by finding their way into an unthinkable fortune. They defied expectations by never using a nickel of that fortune for their own benefit, their own enjoyment. And then they decided to put that fortune to work for the future of the Jewish people and Israel in a manner that is unheard of.
“Who gifts their entire estate in this manner to a cause of any kind?” he said. “This is the exception of all exceptions.”