Stroum, Samuel N. (1921-2001)

  • By Lee Micklin
  • Posted 8/05/2001
  • Essay 3516
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Samuel N. Stroum was a self-made businessman and philanthropist whose far-reaching generosity of time and resources forever enriched Seattle's health, educational, and religious institutions, and especially the arts. Stroum's impact was rooted in a strategic approach to philanthropy and in inspiring others to give. His work had a major impact on the Jewish Community Center, the University of Washington including the Henry Art Gallery, ACT, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Seattle Art Museum, The Seattle Children's Theatre, Empty Space, Intiman, and Seattle Repertory Theatre, among many others. The Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named Samuel Stroum First Citizen of 1988.

Early Years

Samuel Stroum was born in Waltham, Massachusetts, on April 14, 1921, the sixth of seven children, to Russian Jewish immigrants, Ethel and Nathan Stroum. His father was in the retail furniture business, and although the family was not wealthy, they never knew hunger.

When Stroum finished high school, jobs were scarce. War broke out in Europe and Stroum joined the Army Air Corps, with the intention of using it as a vehicle for getting a college education. He was stationed in the third Air Force in Savannah, Georgia.

In 1941, he was sent to airplane mechanics training in Chinootville, Illinois. A leave to attend his sister's wedding set Stroum two weeks behind his training group, and when he returned to the Savannah base, the last truck was pulling out for assignment in the Philippines. "By missing my original deal, I missed going into combat. My entire life would have been totally different," Stroum stated in a 1983 interview with the Jewish Archives Project (Droker interview, p. 11).

Stroum was transferred to Albuquerque for flight engineer training on B-24 bombers. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, the West Coast was threatened and Stroum was sent to Seattle as a flight engineer on one of only seven Army Air Corps crews trained on four-engine planes. He was charged with ferrying the new B-17 bombers off camouflaged Boeing assembly lines to safer destinations across the country. Stroum stated, "Alaska and Seattle were synonymous to me in those days. We had these big leather fur lined sheepskin jackets that we were issued" (Droker Interview, p. 8).

Marriage and Early Career

Stroum met Althea (Diesenhaus) (1922-2011) at the Jewish USO and they were married on August 9, 1942. At the time Stroum was so broke, that Althea paid for the $3 marriage license. Theirs was the first marriage performed in Seattle by Temple de Hirsch's new rabbi, Raphael Levine, one of Seattle's great religious leaders. They had two daughters, Marsha, born in 1945 and Cynthia, born in 1949.

Stroum served six years in the Air Force. When he left the service, his great ambition was to own his own gas station. In 1946, the Stroums returned to Seattle, after a brief stint in Boston with an aunt's fish brokerage business.

Stroum began in sales for the Duane company, a subsidiary of Fred Meyers, and expanded to represent a number of auto supply and radio parts lines. His supervisor at the Duane company introduced him to Erna Jorgeson and Harry Schuck of Schuck's Auto Supply, who became mentors, business contacts, and friends. They were so impressed with Stroum that they asked him if one day he might be interested in owning their business.

More Than Good Luck

In 1960, Stroum founded ALMAC-Stroum Electronics. The radio parts business had grown into industrial electronics. Stroum was a pioneer in the field, supplying Boeing and the fledgling businesses, Fluke and Techtronics. To expand the business, Stroum refinanced his home in order to purchase a distribution center in the new Benaroya Park.

With capital stretched to the limit, he received a call from the owners of Schucks. It was 18 years since they had first asked him if he would be interested in purchasing their Auto Parts business. On the anniversary of their 50th year in operation, they were ready to retire. Jorgeson and Schuck helped Stroum to purchase the business, financing some of the purchase price themselves and allowing him to use Schuck's cash on hand for the down-payment.

At the time of purchase, Schucks, with eight stores and 42 employees, was worth 1.3 million. By 1984, Stroum had expanded Shucks to 96 stores. It was sold to Pay 'n Save for approximately $70 million.

In 1983, Sam Stroum retired to devote his time to philanthropy. Retirement often meant putting in 50-hour weeks serving on boards, heading up capital campaigns, and brokering civic deals. Stroum applied the same brilliant financial strategizing, common sense, and genuineness that had made him so successful in business to the benefit of the organizations he served.

The University of Washington

His involvement with the University of Washington began with a love for Husky football. It led to a lifetime of contribution of talent, time, and resources, the first of which ($150) got him seats on the 50 yard line, in the 1960s.

In 1985, Booth Gardner appointed Stroum to the UW Board of Regents. He served 13 years, until 1998. Stroum also served nine years on the UW Medical Center Board, chairing the first long-range planning committee for expansion.

Stroum headed the capital campaign that lead to the reemergence of the University's Henry Gallery as a modern new visual arts complex. A remodel and expansion quadrupled the gallery's space to 46,000 square feet, adding an auditorium, education center, and storage areas. The south gallery is named for the Stroums, in honor of their $1 million pledge to the Henry's endowment fund.

Jewish Studies

Sam and Althea Stroum's commitment to the fledgling Jewish Studies program played a major role in its establishment at the University. The cause of Jewish studies as a legitimate field was first advocated by Rabbi Arthur Jacobowitz, who arrived to serve at the UW Hillel in 1959.

Jacobowitz and an interdisciplinary faculty committee of Jewish professors lobbied the administration for years. Slow progress was made, beginning with a Jewish History course in the fall of 1969. In 1974, a Jewish studies program was officially established in the Jackson School of International Studies. In 1975 the Stroums established a lecture series in Jewish Studies, bringing renowned scholars from throughout the world to the University for symposiums. In 1985 the Stroums established the Samuel and Althea Stroum Chair in Jewish Studies and in 1987 they gave $1 million dollars to make the chair permanent.

In 1997, Stroum received an honorary doctorate degree from Brandeis University in his hometown of Waltham, Massachusetts. Stroum also received honorary degrees from Seattle University and from Whitworth College.

Jewish Community Center

In 1982, the Jewish Community Center had been in a new facility on Mercer Island for 12 years when it faced a fiscal crisis that resulted in its inability to pay off the construction loan to the lender, SeaFirst Bank. SeaFirst notified the Community Center that the bank would sell the building if the Center defaulted on the loan.

At first Stroum resisted getting involved in the crisis because he sat on the Board of SeaFirst Bank, which could be construed as a conflict of interest. He firmly believed that the Jewish Community Center was one of the community's most valuable assets, cutting across lines of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Ashkenazic, and Sephardic. And when it became evident the community was going to lose the Jewish Community Center because there was no one else who would take a hardball approach, he stepped in.

The Jewish Community Center was a case in point of Stroum's strategic approach to philanthropy. The Stroums reached deep into their own pockets, setting their contribution as an example.

By arranging to hold all funds in escrow, Stroum was also able to tell donors that if the overall goal was not reached their money would be returned in full. Finally, he negotiated with the bank to allow credit-worthy donors to borrow for two years at prime rate. The campaign was successful and the Jewish Community Center was saved. It was renamed the Samuel and Althea Stroum Jewish Community Center.

The Arts

Stroum's involvement can be credited with saving more than one institution from of financial crisis. In 1986, Mayor Charles Royer appointed two Blue Ribbon panels to examine the fiscal shortfalls and capital needs of local arts organizations and the Seattle Symphony. Stroum was an instrumental member of the 20-person task force, making recommendations on 14 leading arts institutions.

More than a decade later, the panel has been credited with the rise of Seattle arts organizations to fiscal health and an unprecedented level of building and renovation of Seattle's arts facilities, including ACT, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Seattle Art Museum, The Seattle Children's Theatre, Empty Space, Intiman, and Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Stroum himself felt that one arts organization's success is good for all the others, and that donations to one cause can stimulate donations all around. "When the boat floats, it lifts everything with it," he said. "The Seattle Art Museum's capital drive ($25 million for a new downtown museum), for instance, didn't dry up other sources of funding. It opened up a new dimension in giving" (The Seattle Times, December 18, 1988).

The second panel, a three member Symphony Task Force, was faced with to saving the symphony -- 1.5 million in debt -- from bankruptcy. The following year Stroum was named Chairman of the Symphony Board and Richard Cooley, former chairman of SeaFirst Bank, stepped in as Symphony President. Characteristic of Stroum, this new leadership moved decisively to implement the panel's recommendations -- an emergency fund drive tapping government and business, an endowment drive combined with an effort to fund a new permanent home, and increased levels of fundraising by $1 million annually.

It was a long haul to the orchestra's new home. In 1989 when the bankrupt Paramount became available, Stroum seized the opportunity to acquire it in order to consider its prospects for the Symphony, but studies found it structurally and acoustically inadequate. In 1991 a Seattle/King County levy that would have supplied $29 million for a new concert hall failed.

Then in May 1993, Jack Benaroya, a philanthropist and business leader, stepped forward with $15.8 million for a new concert hall.

"I always wondered whether we'd get there" Stroum commented, on the announcement of the Benaroya gift, "but the way this thing is positioned it's now doable" (The Seattle Times, May 6, 1993). This statement reflects Stroum's role as a strategist, and civic broker in the long struggle to build a new concert hall for the Seattle Symphony. The Benaroya Concert Hall opened in 1998. The hall's circular lobby, enclosed in a series of bay windows, is named the Samuel and Althea Stroum Grand Lobby.

It gave him great joy to give, but also to guide others toward philanthropic acts. In considering the motivation for giving, Stroum stated. "Before the dollars flow, there has to be an involvement in the art form. In my case, it was Gerard Schwarz [music director of the Seattle Symphony] and the quality product he has brought to this community" (The Seattle Times, December 18, 1988).

Stroum made generous gifts of time and money to the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, United Way of King County, University of Washington Hillel Foundation, Kline Galland Center, Seattle Art Museum, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, and more. Gifts from Stroum family foundations benefited more than 300 charitable organizations and in the 1990s alone totaled more than $40 million. In 2000, the Stroum's largest gift to a single institution, $10 million, was given to Brandeis University. In 1988, The Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named him First Citizen of the Year for his many philanthropic good works.

Samuel Stroum died on March 9, 2001. He left an immeasurable legacy of endowment and civic patronage, having inspired many other entrepreneurs and business leaders to philanthropy.


Howard Droker interview with Samuel Stroum, August 11, 1983, transcript, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Seattle, Washington; Howard Droker, Molly Cone, Jacqueline Williams, "Family of Strangers: Jewish Life in Washington State 1850-1970," work in progress, Manuscripts Special Collections & University Archives, University of Washington; Meta Buttnick, "Samuel Stroum: a Man to be Proud Of," Nizcor (Summer 2000); The Jewish Transcript, March 23, 2001, p 1; The Seattle Times, April 17, 1986, p. G-1; Ibid., October 9, 1987, p. E-3; Ibid., May 17, 1988, p. E-3; Ibid., December 18, 1988, p. J-1; Ibid., December 19, 1989, p. A-10; Ibid., August 4, 1991, p. K-1; Ibid., May 6, 1993, p. D-3; Ibid., September 30, 1990, Pacific Magazine; Ibid., September 22, 1996, p. M-1.
Note: This essay was updated in March 2011.

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