Carl Shapiro, Brandeis benefactor who lost millions to Madoff, dies at 108

by | Mar 18, 2021 | Obituaries

BOSTON (JTA)—Carl J. Shapiro, one of Boston’s most significant philanthropists and Brandeis University’s most generous donor, died March 7 at his home in Boston. He was 108.

Shapiro built his initial wealth in the middle of the 20th century by transforming his father’s small coat factory into Kay Windsor, a national manufacturer of women’s cotton dresses that had a showroom in New York City’s Garment District. The business earned Shapiro the moniker “Cotton King.”

After selling the business in 1971 for $21 million, Shapiro placed some of that money with the now-convicted swindler Bernard Madoff, an investment that eventually ballooned to more than $1 billion.

Through the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation, he and his wife, who died in 2012, supported many medical institutions, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, cultural centers and local initiatives in Boston and Palm Beach, Florida, where they also lived.
They supported Jewish causes as well, giving large donations to the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum. Their names are prominent at the community center at NewBridge on the Charles, the senior living residence of Hebrew Senior Life.

“The Shapiros’ philanthropy has benefitted thousands of children and families, making the arts and education more inclusive for all, helping those seeking employment and job training, and enriching Jewish life in Greater Boston and beyond. He will be greatly missed,” Marc Baker, president and CEO of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, said in an email.

The couple’s largesse is most notable at Brandeis, where over the years they gave more than $72 million to the suburban Boston campus. Their names adorn the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Student Center, the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Admissions Center, and the Carl J. Shapiro Science Center. They also supported programs at the college.

The couple gave their first $10 to Brandeis in 1950, just two years after the university’s founding, according to Brandeis Now. While neither attended the college, they felt a kinship with the school founded by the American Jewish community at a time when many other colleges excluded Jewish students.

“This institution would not have achieved or been able to maintain its reputation for academic excellence without the Shapiro’s family’s dedication,” Brandeis President Ronald Liebowitz said.

In 2003, Brandeis awarded Shapiro, who served on the board of trustees, an honorary degree.

The Shapiros’ philanthropy was upended with Madoff’s admission of fraud at the end of 2008 for running the largest ever Ponzi scheme, using money from newer investors to pay fabricated profits to others. Two years later, Shapiro agreed to repay $625 million from his investment profits as part of the federal government’s effort to recover the losses for Madoff’s victims.
Shapiro, who said he never knew about Madoff’s scheme and was stunned to learn about it, reported losing a total of $545 million, which included $250 million that he gave Madoff just weeks before the scandal was exposed.

Shapiro, who was born on Feb. 15, 1913, was one of three children. He left Boston University during the Depression to help run his father’s business. Ruth Gordon, whom he married in 1939, died in 2012 after 73 years of marriage; a daughter, Rhonda, died in 2014. He is survived by two daughters, seven grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

Many of them were involved in the family’s giving.

“The kitchen table in our home became the family foundation’s boardroom,” Rhonda Zinner wrote in her mother’s obituary. “My sisters and I were blessed to be raised by a father and mother whose values taught us the importance of doing all you can to try and make a difference.”

– Penny Schwartz