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Philanthropist Leonard Florence dies

Silver king gave much to BU and to many charities

Leonard Florence in the robing room before receiving a BU Honorary Degree May 20, 2001. Photo by Fred Sway

Leonard Florence (SMG’54, Hon.’01), a well-known entrepreneur and philanthropist, died on June 26. Famous for his energy and charity, Florence lived a life that included in equal measure hard work, business savvy, and deep generosity.

Florence devoted much of his philanthropic giving to Boston University. Along with Irwin Chafetz (CAS’58, Hon.’04), he gave the $2.5 million naming gift for the new Hillel building, the Florence and Chafetz Hillel House, which was dedicated and opened on May 12, 2005. Old friends and colleagues, Florence and Chafetz were proud of their collaboration on Hillel House. “Lenny was a wonderfully charitable man,” says Chafetz, “who lived his life to the fullest, making the world a better place.”

“Mr. Florence will always be regarded as a champion of Hillel and its mission of encouraging and enhancing Jewish life on a college campus,” says Jonah Kaplan (COM’08), copresident of BU Hillel. “His uncompromising financial and moral support has created an attractive, comfortable, and pluralistic Hillel that will welcome thousands upon thousands of Jewish students in the future.”

Florence grew up in Chelsea, one of eight children born to Russian Jewish immigrants. There are different versions of the road that led him to BU. One has it that while working in a jewelry store, Florence met silver entrepreneur and former trustee Dewey Stone (SMG’20, Hon.’50), who was so impressed by the young man that he eventually offered to pay his way through BU. Another claims that despite working several jobs shining shoes, delivering laundry, and selling newspapers, Florence ran out of money while attending BU, and the president of the university, impressed by his energy, contacted Stone, who was known for his philanthropy. Stone, for whom the Stone Science Building is named, agreed to pay Florence’s way on the condition that he stop working and concentrate on the books.

Whichever version one subscribes to, it’s certain that Florence was deeply influenced by the kindness of his mentor. In a 2003 interview with Hebrew Today, Florence recalled, “Dewey allowed me to become a millionaire by the time I was 30. He said if you make it, you have to share it.”

After graduating from the School of Management in 1954, Florence helped Stone revive his struggling silver business. He then formed his own company, Leonard Silver, which he later merged with Towle, one of the oldest American companies in the silver business. In 1982, the Wall Street Journal described Florence as the “king of sterling.”

Florence became an overseer at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in 1999 and was made an overseer-for-life earlier this year. His philanthropic efforts on behalf of a wide range of causes stretched beyond religious or geographic lines to include, besides Boston University, Boston’s Catholic Charities, Hebrew College, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Soldiers Home, and the American Committee for the Weizmann Institute. In 1993, by appointment of Pope John Paul II, Florence received the Order of the Knights of St. Gregory the Great, which recognizes individuals who distinguish themselves for notable accomplishments on behalf of society, regardless of their religious beliefs.

Louis Lataif (SMG’61, Hon.’90), dean of the School of Management, which was another of Florence’s charitable interests, says that Florence “embodied the concept of ‘philanthropy’ not simply because of the considerable financial support he provided, but because his deepest motivation was to help others in any way he could. The Greek root of ‘philanthropy’ means ‘loving mankind,’ and Lenny certainly did!”

“Lenny was a dear personal friend who derived enormous pleasure from being of help,
 says Lataif. “Our school, our University, our community, and our country are better because Lenny lived. We will sorely miss him.”