Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.
Fast Forward

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

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 largess 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.”

Engage

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.