Four Main Line philanthropists you should know.
Twenty-five years ago, right around the time the Wellness Community was putting down roots in Santa Monica, Calif., it was rare for cancer victims to talk openly about their illness. Support groups as we know them today were practically non-existent. And for the most part, patients and their families had few outlets for their questions and fears.
Around that time, Villanova’s Jill Durovsik learned that her mother had terminal lung cancer. “She was so isolated,” says
Durovsik. “She didn’t have a place to talk about her feelings with others going through the same thing. I could be there for her and listen, but I couldn’t truly get what she was experiencing emotionally. It’s really hard to understand someone else’s fear of dying.”
It was during her mother’s battle that Durovsik first heard about the Wellness Community, a nonprofit organization offering a multitude of support services to cancer patients and their families and caregivers. Her initial introduction was through It’s Always Something by Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer in 1989 at the age of 42. In the book, Radner conveyed the center’s positive impact on her emotional well-being, which prompted Durovsik to explore services for her mother.
Five years later, she met Connie Carino, who invited her take a leading role in founding the Philadelphia branch (twcp.org). Durovsik’s dedication to the Wellness Community since then has been remarkable even for someone directly affected by cancer. Board chair, she clocks an average of 25-30 hours per week as one of the organization’s most prominent spokespeople, fundraisers and cheerleaders. And she and husband Tom have offered generous financial support on a personal level.
Recently, Durovsik was appointed chair of the National Cancer Survivorship Training and Research Institute, a job rivaling that of a corporate CEO (minus the paycheck) and elevating her work to full-time status. While some might feel daunted by such a weighty undertaking, Durovsik greets it with gratitude. “I feel so fortunate that this can be a job for me and that I can do it for free,” she says. “It’s a great thing.”
The institute’s launch this year coincides with the Wellness Community’s 25th anniversary and celebrates the organization’s commitment to cost-free, community-based, patient-active
support and psychosocial wellness for all types of cancer patients, no matter what stage of the disease they’re in. “Our mission is to elevate psychosocial wellness and survivorship as the national gold standard,” says Durovsik. “We have 25 sites around the country and a front-row seat to the positive impact this type of support has on patients. If we can prove to an
insurance company that psychosocial support equates to reduced medical needs and benefits, we can get more money for cancer patients and, ultimately, better services.”
The institute will serve as a national training center for Wellness Community staff and outside professionals specializing in oncology and other chronic illnesses. On the research end, the goal is to conduct cutting-edge studies and incorporate the findings into patient programs. Durovsik wants to transform the institute into a self-sustaining entity within three years. Topping her to-do list is finding a location (the Fairmount Park area is a distinct possibility), an architect and a builder, and assembling an experienced staff and a talented board, all while helping to raise the annual $1.5 million for operations.
“It’s such a relief for people to come here and not have to worry about that aspect of their cancer,” says Durovsik of the Wellness Community’s free services, which include yoga, tai chi, scrap-booking, art classes, writing workshops, medical seminars, professionally supervised therapy meetings and more. “I just brought a friend here, and to see her get excited about the workshops—to see her eagerness—it was rewarding.”
Akiba Hebrew Academy has Leonard Barrack and wife Lynne to thank for its remarkable transformation. Due to their generosity, Akiba will no longer be shoehorned into its small property in Bala Cynwyd.
The oldest community Jewish secondary day school in North America is moving to a more spacious campus in Bryn Mawr. From here on out, it will be known as the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in memory of Len’s brother, who died in a tragic plane crash in 1960. The academy’s new 86,000-square-foot home should be ready for students in September 2008. The Barrack Foundation’s $5 million donation will go largely toward scholarships, allowing Jewish students otherwise unable to afford tuition to attend the school.
“No longer will we accept decreasing enrollment, increasing tuition and a lack of competitive facilities in our Jewish day schools,” said Barrack in an impassioned speech at the school’s dedication in September.
An Akiba alumnus and Bryn Mawr resident, Barrack is a founding partner of Barrack, Rodos & Bacine, the Center City law firm perhaps best known for its successful $6.13 billion class-action lawsuit against WorldCom. He took over as president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia in September and was intimately involved in the federation’s purchase of the American College in Bryn Mawr, which is now its Radnor campus. The Barrack Hebrew Academy will occupy the largest building, with plans to convert nearby structures into a gymnasium and a computer laboratory.
The Barracks’ philanthropic efforts extend well beyond the region’s Jewish community. Lynne and Temple alum Len led the way for the creation of the Temple University’s Morris and Sylvia Barrack Hall. In gratitude to his legal mentor, Harold Kohn,
Barrack established the Harold E. Kohn Chair in Law at the school with Kohn’s son. There’s also the Barrack Public Interest Fellowship Program fund.
Even now, Barrack has trouble talking about the day in 1960 when his life changed forever. He was 17 and a freshman at Emory University in Atlanta when his 27-year-old brother, Jack, and his 57-year-old father, Morris, hopped on a flight in Boston that never reached its destination. Barrack was the youngest of four children and his two older sisters were married, so he came home to take care of his mother, enrolling in Temple’s business school. “I got some good advice while I was majoring in accounting and minoring in finance at Temple,” Barrack recalls. “I was urged to go to law school because the combination of the two degrees would make for a successful career. And they weren’t wrong.”
While at Temple’s law school, Barrack was editor of the Temple Law Reporter. Today, he’s a member of the university’s board of trustees and chairman of its academic affairs committee. He’s also chairing its capital campaign.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Barrack is already planning a major happening for next year. On April 17, he and Lynne are co-chairing the 60th anniversary celebration of the state of Israel. Caroline and Sidney Kimmel are serving as honorary co-chairs at the event, which features the Philadelphia Orchestra and will take place at the Kimmel Center.
Politics is another of Barrack’s passions. He was the finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee under President Clinton. And you can bet he’ll be a key player in next year’s presidential election.
E. Gerald Riesenbach
Jerry Riesenbach’s “self-defining moment” came while he was president of the theater club at Coatesville High School. “I learned early that I didn’t have what it takes to become a professional actor,” he says now with a laugh.
Instead, Riesenbach went on to become an award-winning attorney specializing in healthcare. But he always carried his love of the stage with him. The beneficiary of that affection is the Philadelphia Theatre Company, which has finally found its permanent Center City home in the Suzanne Roberts Theatre thanks to a unique synergistic alliance with builder Carl Dranoff.
As president of the Philadelphia Theatre Company, the Bala Cynwyd resident oversaw the move after decades of renting space at Plays and Players Theater on Delancey Street. One reward for all those years of working with architects, board members and legal briefs: presiding over the theater’s opening gala in October. Dubbed “An Evening with Terrence McNally and Friends,” the event featured vignettes from McNally’s distinguished plays
performed by world-class actors—among them Nathan Lane, Edie Falco, John Glover, Richard Thomas and Doris Roberts.
Leslie Anne Miller, who chaired the Kimmel Center for its auspicious entrance into the world, served as a co-chair of the Philadelphia Theatre Company gala. “The Suzanne Roberts Theatre is a fabulous addition to the Avenue of the Arts, joining the Kimmel Center, the Academy of Music and other world-class venues,” she says of the 360-seat gem. “With its windows on Broad Street, this will be a fabulous event space.”
Riesenbach remains modest about his own accomplishments in his profession and the widespread praise he’s received for his work as chair of Cozen O’Connor’s Health Law Practice Group. His alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, honored him with the Alumni Award of Merit a few years ago, and a long list of community agencies and organizations have benefited from his talent and dedication.
But it’s the mere mention of his work with the Philadelphia Theatre Company that makes him glow. The season was to have opened a week after the gala with McNally’s newest play, Unusual Acts of Devotion, but the illness of star Kathy Bates forced a postponement. Riesenbach credits producing artistic director Sara Garonzik with snaring a worthy replacement for the opening production—Being Alive, conceived and directed by Billy Porter, which runs through Dec. 2.
“On a personal level, [it’s] a culmination of four years of hard work by a lot of people. Many didn’t believe we could do this—and to have it turn out so beautiful and functional is spectacular,” says Riesenbach. “Add to that our ability to attract the famous Broadway stars to our stage, and that says something about who we are in theater circles.”
The exact year is a little fuzzy, but for Susan Shea, the memory of her mother giving blood to a perfect stranger is quite clear.
“We were living in Allentown, and my sister, my brother and I were in the back seat of the car,” she remembers. “A special announcement came over the airwaves with an urgent plea for blood—AB-, the rarest type—for a woman facing surgery. If they couldn’t find a donor, the woman was going to die. My mother was a match.”
The next thing they knew, they were parked at a phone booth while Shea’s mom called the radio station to get the details. “The woman lived,” says Shea. “It’s something I never forgot. Without fanfare, my mother saved a life simply because she could.”
As a middle school special education teacher for the T/E School District from 1997 to 2004, the Berwyn resident had devoted a bulk of her time to improving the quality of education and services for students with special needs. In 2006, she became part of a community effort to provide financial, emotional and environmental support to students unable to take full advantage of district offerings through the non-profit organization FLITE (Foundation for Learning in Tredyffrin/Easttown).
“Everything I do is about children,” says Shea, who, over the years, has actively supported such kid-oriented organizations as the Please Touch Museum and Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. “Education is one of the most significant ways to make a difference in the lives of children—to give them a chance for success.”
Finding her way to the Gesu School in Philadelphia was more a matter of fate than chance. In October 2003, Shea and others in the community were “hit with an earthquake that rattled us all and changed the course of our lives”—the brutal murder of Mark Fisher, a former T/E student and best friend of Shea’s son. As Shea, her son and his friend’s family grappled with the senselessness of the crime, she grew compelled to make a difference beyond what she’d already been doing as a teacher and volunteer/supporter for many of the area’s charitable organizations.
An invitation in the spring of 2004 to visit the Gesu School—an independent, all-faiths school in one of the city’s most hard-pressed neighborhoods—afforded Shea the opportunity she was looking for. “At the time, the school was looking to increase its visibility among those who might be potential supporters,” she says. “When I saw what they were doing and met the kids, I knew instantly that this was where I wanted to make that difference.”
By the fall, Shea had been invited to become a board trustee, which she accepted without hesitation. Her only caveat: She wanted to be directly involved with students on whatever level possible. So one day a week, she works in the resource room
getting to know the kids.
Another source of pride is the ballroom dancing program she introduced with help from Samantha Bellomo, a former dance instructor from the Arthur Murray Dance Academy in Paoli. Not only has Shea expanded the program to two other schools, she’s initiated the collection of prom, cocktail and ball dresses and gowns for the grand finale after the 10-week session. “This isn’t just learning how to dance. It’s about confidence, eye contact, body language and working as a team,” she says. “The parents have been overwhelmed at the changes they’ve seen in their kids.”
Right now, Shea’s greatest challenge is trying to cram more than 24 hours into her day. “My plate is full with all my favorite things, but there’s so much more,” says Shea, one of six recent recipients of the Please Touch Museum’s 12th annual “Great Friends to Kids” Award. “These children have such heart and soul, and they all have a story behind them. Their road is hard, but they’re eager to go.”