Turning daydreams into practical solutions
By David Lyman
Richard Rosenthal was a scrawny kid. As he entered his freshman year at Walnut Hills High School he was not quite 5 feet tall and a shade under 100 pounds.
“I was,” he admits, “the shrimpiest shrimp.”
It got worse. By the end of ninth grade, it was clear that Walnut wasn’t the place for him, so he transferred to far less prestigious Hughes High School.
“My excuse has always been that there were no classes in daydreaming,” he says. “That would have pulled my average way up.”
It’s a clever line, but to those who have followed Rosenthal’s decades of philanthropy – some quiet, some very public – it’s an apt description. He has, apparently, engaged in some mighty and profound daydreaming since graduating from Hughes in 1951.
He’s worked hard, too, becoming enormously successful as president and owner of F&W Publishing Corp., publisher of Writer’s Digest, Artist’s Market, Writer’s Market and scores of other publications.
But when Rosenthal, 83, is recognized as Philanthropist of the Year during the National Philanthropy Day luncheon, Nov. 15, it will be for the decades spent turning his daydreams into dozens and dozens of philanthropic undertakings that have enriched lives, fed the hungry and provided opportunities – educational, artistic, occupational – for hundreds of thousands of Greater Cincinnatians.
The most recent and one of the highest profile of those gifts was the $15 million bequest to the University of Cincinnati Law School to support the Ohio Innocence Project.
A lifetime of giving
Go to the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber website and you’ll find an article and accompanying video from 2013, when Rosenthal was recognized as a Great Living Cincinnatian. The list of involvements is extensive: the Freestore Foodbank, Cincinnati Art Museum, the Playhouse in the Park and – what is to many the crowning jewel of Richard and his late wife Lois’ philanthropic efforts – the new home of the Contemporary Arts Center.
Many others aren’t listed – smaller in dollar amounts, perhaps, and smaller in their public profiles. But to Rosenthal, they’re no less important.
Down at the very bottom of that Chamber article, there’s a mention of Uptown Arts, a resurrected warehouse tucked away near the corner of E. Liberty and Main streets. You may have missed it. The eye tends to be pulled away by the ArtWorks/Jenny Ustick mural of a young and magnificent James Brown that adorns the wall next door. Look to the right of the mural. That’s Uptown Arts.
“Free Classes for 5-10 year olds in Art, Music, Acting and Dance,” reads the message on the Uptown Arts website. (It needs an update – the upper age is 11 now.)
The message is classic Richard Rosenthal. You won’t find the Rosenthal name anywhere on the web site. That’s about ego, not the product you’re offering. As a publisher, he always preferred the direct approach. So there’s nothing cute. Nothing clever. If you’re trying to sell something, tell people why they should buy it. Even if, as in this case, it’s free. (And “free,” he would tell you, is a very, very compelling reason to buy.)
“Richard doesn’t do this sort of thing to achieve recognition,” says Rodney M. Grabowski, president of the UC Foundation and the one who nominated him for the National Philanthropy Day recognition. “When he contributed $15 million to the Ohio Innocence Project, we had to convince him not to do it anonymously.”
He’s not the kind of man who writes a check and considers his obligation complete. He’d much rather write a check and then ask how he can help make things more successful. Uptown Arts was founded in 1999, but to this day, Rosenthal is there from 9 to 6 every day. He keeps the books, meets with parents and, on occasion, ties the shoes of students who haven’t mastered that skill yet.
When Zaha Hadid was commissioned to design The Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, there was constant gossip about how difficult she was, and she could be. But she and Rosenthal got along famously. If you insist, he can tell you about Hadid’s diva-like tendencies. But left to his own devices, this is the anecdote he prefers.
“Someone asked her – it wasn’t me – how do you describe a really well-built, well-designed building?” recalls Rosenthal. “She said it should do two things. It should feed the soul. And it should keep you dry.”
Part daydream, part practicality – just like the world Rosenthal grew up in.
He was one of five children of Wilbert and Helen Rosenthal. Growing up in a large North Avondale home – it’s a funeral home today – was predictably chaotic.
“There was always classical music being played on the Magnavox,” recalls Rosenthal. “Or my mother was playing. She had two grand pianos.”
But just as important was the sense that community and family were paramount. That sense is at the heart of the Reform Judaism that guided the Rosenthal family’s faith. When he talks about leading by example, a common theme, he’s not talking about himself.
“The example was set by my parents,” he says. “It was very philanthropic. But not so much with money, because the money was not there.”
His mother was a “super-volunteer,” he says. “She was the leading ticket seller for subscriptions to the CSO back in the day when that was all done by volunteers. She made bandages during the war. She taught English to refugees. There just wasn’t enough for her to do. She forged a new major at UC in music therapy.”
And on and on it goes.
“My siblings and I were raised in a household where that was just part of what you did, part of who you were.”
It’s a philosophy that he has passed along to his own children, Jennie Rosenthal Berliant and David Rosenthal.
“Trying to make a difference in the community is a family passion,” says Jennie. “I know it sounds like a cliché, but we were raised to believe that we should leave the world a better place. Look at the sorts of things we’ve supported; freeing a person who’s been wrongfully convicted, enjoying the beauty or majesty of art, helping people learn a new trade. It’s exciting. Being able to bring new opportunities and experience to a variety of people has been a privilege.”
As Wilbert Rosenthal would have described it, it’s about being generous and “productively busy.”
And humble, Richard would insist.
Along with all his other projects, Rosenthal is deeply involved in something called Transform Cincinnati.
“The whole idea of it is to find others who have the amount of capacity that I have – and a lot more – who don’t understand the joy of doing this,” says Rosenthal. “We try to bring people who have the resources and bring them together with projects that need doing. They don’t understand how totally fulfilling this is. Totally. I’m a happy man.”
A happy man
“He has a wonderful heart,” says Kitty Rosenthal, who he married in 2015. “He’s easygoing and has such a wonderful sense of humor. I don’t think people are aware of that, which is a shame. He has boundless energy, too.”
She tells stories about him chopping down trees and splitting firewood, about being an inveterate walker and doing Pilates sessions twice a week.
She’s silent for a moment. This isn’t an exercise in listing accomplishments, after all.
“He’s a good man,” she says. “That’s such a wonderful quality. The best, in fact. And, like I said before, he has a wonderful heart. What better thing can you say about a person?”
– Photos by Tina Gutierrez