Kurt Chandler has worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor and author. He has written for Milwaukee Magazine, Salon.com, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and The New York Times, among others. An award-winning writer, he is the author of Shaving Lessons: A Memoir of Father and Son, and Passages of Pride: Lesbian and Gay Youth Come of Age. Chandler lives with his wife in the Milwaukee area.
[Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki]
How I Built an Empire and Gave It Away
By Joseph J. Zilber with Kurt Chandler
Clothbound with dust jacket
248 pages | Photographs | $25.00 | Index
Joseph Zilber saw remarkable changes during his lifetime. Born in Milwaukee in 1917, he grew up behind the family grocery store in a tight-knit Milwaukee neighborhood, which was the center of his universe. Here, he learned his core values from his humble and hardworking parents — Jewish immigrants from Russia. While still in grade school, he was hawking newspapers on the street corner and spending his hard-earned profits on expanding his knowledge about the world and his city.
As his world expanded, so did Joe’s vision of what he wanted to accomplish. He graduated from Marquette University Law School with honors and served in the United States Army in World War II. As the end of the war neared, he realized that millions of veterans would need a place to live when they returned home. To meet this pressing need he began building houses, hundreds of them, creating entire neighborhoods in the Milwaukee area.
The American Dream was in full bloom and Joe was in the prime of his life. He expanded his real estate activities to include office buildings, nursing homes, fitness salons, college dormitories, Florida condos, and Las Vegas hotels. You name it, he built it — a heating plant in the Arctic Circle, no problem, a circular church designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (some problems), and 15 fake missile silos in a North Dakota farm field, made to fool the Russian satellites as they passed overhead.
Joe’s strong moral compass led him to buy and destroy serial killer Jeffery Dahmer’s devices of madness, run massive newspaper ads after 9/11 telling the terrorists they would never win and saying to people young and old, by action and by deed that “I care about you and your future."
As he approached his ninth decade, he looked into the future. With Vera, his wife of 61 years, they decided to give away their fortune to help rebuild their hometown and restore the American Dream to its most disadvantaged.
They established the Zilber Family Foundation, which funded college scholarships, contributed to a new law school at Marquette University, and created a Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. To revive Milwaukee’s inner city, Zilber formed the Zilber Neighborhood Initiative, giving future generations a shot at reaching their full potential.
In this insightful and entertaining book, Joe Zilber tells of his joys and heartaches, his hits and misses, the wisdom he gained along the way — and the satisfaction he experienced by helping others to have a chance to succeed.
“Joe Zilber was a visionary in numerous ways. He transformed major parts of this city by building thousands of homes for working class families who wanted to be able to live the American Dream. Later in life he had another vision – to leave a legacy to improve the quality of life, particularly in challenged neighborhoods like those where he grew up. I will always remember the phone call that I received from him when he said that he wanted his legacy to include the old and abandoned Pabst Brewery, where he has literally transformed an area of the city into one that is now thriving. He also understood the need to help those who were left behind, which he did out of a sense of civic responsibility and caring for human beings, and that legacy certainly lives on. He has left his mark in so many ways, for which I, and the citizens of our city, will be eternally grateful.”
Tom Barrett, Mayor, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
“My family and I, particularly my father, knew, worked with, and admired Joe Zilber. Joe’s contributions to Milwaukee were many and his focus on development of moderate-priced high-value housing and improving Milwaukee’s neighborhoods remain as lasting legacies. The Zilber name has become iconic with ideas and initiatives for the betterment of Milwaukee and our country.”
Herb Kohl, Senator, Wisconsin
“During his lifetime, Joe Zilber provided a model of conduct focused on ‘doing the right thing.’ This included purchasing and destroying all of the Jeffrey Dahmer property used in his trial, running newspaper ads immediately after 9-11 encouraging businesses to keep investing in America in order to prevent the terrorists from winning, and buying the decaying Pabst Brewery and turning it into an historic, sustainable neighborhood. No matter what the issue, Joe Zilber stood up to be counted – supplying the wit, wisdom, method and means to demonstrate true leadership wherever and whenever needed. Joe Zilber was, indeed, a remarkable human being.”
Mike Mervis, Vice President, Zilber Ltd. (Retired), Assistant to Joe Zilber for 38 years
“Joe Zilber always said that Marquette gave him far more than an education. After earning his bachelor’s degree, he graduated at the top of his Marquette Law School class. Joe decided to make a transformational impact on the lives of thousands of students through his scholarship programs in the College of Business Administration and the Law School. His remarkable $30 million gift to the Law School ensures that generations of current and future students will continue to benefit from Joe’s generosity. His accomplishments and impact on Marquette, our Milwaukee community, and our nation are a reflection of his commitment to make a difference thus fulfilling the tenets of his faith and ours.”
Scott R. Pilarz, S.J., President, Marquette University