A Fond Farewell To Willard Hackerman

Feb 13, 2014

Credit Tom Chalkley

Near the end of the philanthropist Willard Hackerman’s life, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg went to see him in the hospital.

Leaning over his bed, he said, “It’s Rabbi Wohlberg. Do you have enough strength to sign a check?”

Upon hearing that story, there was a burst of knowing laughter from the 500 mourners at Beth Tfiloh Synagogue at a funeral service Tuesday.

Hackerman, who died Monday, smiled what Wholberg called “that wonderful, benign smile.”

Just a story of course. But a believable one for a man acclaimed for his open-handed approach to individual and civic needs. The Tuesday service was a time to think again about Hackerman’s contributions – many of the Inner Harbor buildings, a statue of William Donald Schaefer, infusions of cash to end a musician’s strike at the Baltimore Symphony – but the story Tuesday was Hackerman, the man.

His son, Steven, said someone was always walking up to thank his father for something. His father would often reply, “I should thank you for giving me the opportunity." "He taught me how to live life with grace and dignity,” Steven said. And what a Dad, he went on. The hugely successful father was always home by 6 for dinner. “He danced me around the room while I stood on the tops of his shoes. I have always and I will always follow in his footsteps.”

Many in the audience may have been asking themselves a question Rabbi Wohlberg posed for himself: “Oh my God, what did I do to deserve Willard Hackerman in my life?”

Wohlberg said he and Tzippy Shorr, head of the Beth Tfiloh School, felt obliged sometimes to say they hadn’t come to ask for money. “He would tell us he was losing respect for us,” the rabbi said.

More laughter. What a sendoff.

Your comments are welcome at fsmith@wypr.org.