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Sunday, March 11, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Patron Samuel Stroum, known to many as godfather of giving, dies at 79

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Samuel J. Stroum, a monumental and largely self-made figure in Seattle arts, business and Jewish affairs, whose philanthropy helped individuals as well as health and educational institutions, and entire arts companies, leaves an incalculable legacy.

Mr. Stroum died Friday (March 9) after an 11-month battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 79.

Considered by many to be the godfather of Seattle giving, who almost single-handedly saved the Seattle Symphony from bankruptcy, and whose money and persuasiveness helped build Benaroya Hall, he got others to give partly because he gave so willingly.

"We cannot imagine the world without him because he was such a force," said Cynthia Stroum, his daughter and principal of Sam Stroum Enterprises. "He inspired many generations to give of themselves. We've received phenomenal e-mails and letters. People weren't afraid to tell him that they loved him."

Mr. Stroum's wealth seemed to grow exponentially from his one-time holdings in Schuck's auto-parts stores and other concerns. But the stocky, white-haired patriarch, an early owner of the Seattle Seahawks, said he wanted only to provide for his family and community.

"I don't want to wait until I am dead," Stroum liked to say. "It's too much fun giving while I am alive, and I can see the results."

He typically gave away $2 million or more per year, notably since his retirement from the active business world in the mid-1980s. Each year he also helped raise millions more.

Gifts from his and his wife's foundations have touched some 300 organizations including the Jewish Federation of Seattle, the University of Washington, the Seattle Art Museum, Medic One, the Northwest School for the Hearing Impaired and various hospitals.

In 1990 he offered to buy the bankrupt Paramount Theatre for the symphony for $5 million, but the theater owner backed out.

"(Sam) takes vast pleasure in giving away money," former UW President William Gerberding told The Times in 1990. "And he gives away far more than he can deduct."

"It's a mission for him. An absolute mission," Paul Skinner, president of Skinner Corp. and son of the late philanthropist Ned Skinner, said for the same article.

Although Mr. Stroum did not go beyond high school, he was a longtime board member of Seafirst Bank and a two-term former chairman of the UW Medical Center board. He also was a past-president of the UW Board of Regents.

"I think that Sam was one of the people who was instrumental in me looking at philanthropy seriously," said Herman Sarkowsky, a Seattle developer and philanthropist.

"As far back as the 1970s, he started talking to me about philanthropy in general and got me interested in things I hadn't really paid that much attention to. I sort of used him as my guide."

Mr. Stroum rose from a job as a wholesale sundries salesman after World War II to found an electronics distribution company, ALMAC/Stroum Electronics. In the '60s, he bought the region's most popular auto-parts chain, Schuck's Auto Supply.

He sold ALMAC in the '70s. In 1984, with son-in-law and Schuck's President Stuart Sloan, he sold the expanded Schuck's chain for $70 million in an ill-fated deal with Pay 'n Save.

Savvy in venture-capital projects as well, he was a hunch investor in biotech firms such as Imre and Procyte, and an early investor in Advanced Technology Laboratories, Egghead Discount Software and many small technology start-ups.

Local legend has it that 20 years ago, when Mary Gates worried that her son, Bill Gates III, was dropping out of Harvard to focus on his fledgling software company, she sat her son down with Mr. Stroum for some advice over lunch. Mrs. Gates was a UW regent and civic activist who first worked with Mr. Stroum on a United Way campaign.

Mr. Stroum encouraged young Gates to forget Harvard and continue with his plans for what has become Microsoft.

Money was never his motivation, said his daughter Cynthia Stroum. Her father loved the art of business and strategic thinking, and he loved helping people. He had such an impact on the 12th-floor staff at Swedish Medical Center that the nurses visited him on their days off, she said.

Mr. Stroum, an avid Husky football fan, put in 50-hour weeks in the business of philanthropy - sitting on boards, cutting civic deals and raising money.

In 1982, when the Eastside Jewish Community Center faced bankruptcy, he led a campaign that pulled in $4.2 million in two months - prompting the center's board to rename it the Samuel and Althea Stroum Jewish Community Center.

In 1990 he showed his clout working with Seafirst Chairman Richard Cooley to raise $340,000 in a week to balance the symphony budget, sweetening the pot with $100,000 of his own money before for putting the touch on others.

He was considered a visionary, not a detail or numbers man, although he was eminently familiar with accounts and spreadsheets.

"Sam doesn't like to deal with numbers very often, but he is very capable of it," his investment manager, Harvey Gillis, told The Times in 1990.

"A lot of people look at their feet. Sam is always looking out at the horizon, out one, two or three years, asking, `Where is this thing going?' "

In 1984, within days of talking with Michael Darland, founder of Digital Systems International - a Redmond telecommunications company - Mr. Stroum wrote him a check for $1.5 million. When the company went public with a successful initial public offering in 1990, the founders and early investors became multimillionaires.

Estimates of several years ago placed Mr. Stroum's wealth at between $50 million and $100 million.

One of seven children born in Boston to Russian immigrants, Mr. Stroum witnessed the failure of his father's furniture business and the slow death of his father from lung cancer.

"He saw what failure did, the consequences of failure," Stroum's sister, Gertrude Berman, once told The Times. So did his mother, who volunteered time for community causes while raising a big family.

Jobs were scarce in 1939 when he graduated from high school in the Boston area, so he joined the Army Air Corps.

But in the fall of 1941, months before the U.S. entered World War II, Mr. Stroum took a leave to attend a sister's wedding, and while he was gone, his squad shipped out to the Philippines. Mr. Stroum became a crew chief and flight engineer, and came to Seattle to ferry Boeing B-17 bombers throughout the nation.

When he first arrived in Seattle, Mr. Stroum lived with the other aviators at the Sorrento Hotel. He met his future wife at the nearby Jewish USO center. They were married Aug. 9, 1942, and Mrs. Stroum paid for the $3 marriage license. They were the first couple married by Temple De Hirsch-Sinai's new rabbi Raphael Levine, who became one of Seattle's great religious leaders.

Briefly living in Portland, he sold different items including auto parts.

He settled in Seattle in the late 1940s and formed several sales companies to representing automotive- and radio-parts makers. In the mid-1950s he became an electronics distributor.

He named his main company ALMAC/Stroum Electronics, combining the names of his wife, Althea, and his two daughters, Marsha and Cynthia.

He also began distributing parts for Erna Jorgensen and Harry Schuck, who had founded Schuck's Auto Supply. In 1967, when the pair retired, Mr. Stroum bought their business with their help and oversaw expansion of the chain to seven stores.

Stroum sold ALMAC in 1974 for some $2 million. He then made his first major charitable gift: $600,000 to the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. He sold Schuck's to Pay n' Save in 1984 for $70 million, beginning a new career of giving.

Her father left incredibly large shoes to fill, said Cynthia Stroum.

"He was given a 90-day prognosis, and he lived 11 months," said Cynthia Stroum, whose experience with her father's battle with pancreatic cancer has led her to serve on the board of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

"He had such a passion for living that he didn't give up to the very end. He believed that he was given a gift, and I want to carry on that legacy."

Survivors include his wife of 58 years, Althea Stroum; daughters Cynthia Stroum and Marsha S. Glazer; siblings Herman Stroum of Florida, Gertrude Berman of Florida and Joseph Stroum of Seattle; grandchildren Adam and Tamara Sloan of New York, Scott J. Sloan of Los Angeles and Courtney Stroum Meagher of Seattle.

Services are at 2 p.m. today at Temple De Hirsch-Sinai, 1511 E. Pike St., Seattle.

Donations may go to the Swedish Hospital Tumor Institute, the Stroum Jewish Community Center or the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN, P.O. Box 4809, Palos Verdes, CA 90274).

Seattle Times staff reporter Keiko Morris contributed to this story.

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