Entrepreneur and industrialist Norbert Gehr lost his battle with leukemia in February at age 74, but his family foundation’s $20 million gift to the Keck School of Medicine of USC for research may help others fight their own.
Gehr was the founder and CEO of The Gehr Group, a privately held, Los Angeles-based multinational organization with interests in international trade, real estate, manufacturing, wholesale and distribution.
Diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) two years ago, Gehr had great respect for his Keck Medicine of USC doctors — internist David Goldstein and hematologist Casey O’Connell — and wanted to support their research as part of his legacy.
The gift will be split between the research efforts of O’Connell and Goldstein. O’Connell will use the gift for translational research into blood diseases such as myelodysplastic syndromes, which can lead to leukemia, and AML, the most common adult acute leukemia.
Goldstein’s research includes practical methods for improving delivery of health care through a team-based, coordinated approach. He is chief of the Division of Geriatric, Hospital, Palliative and General Internal Medicine and vice chair for clinical affairs for the Department of Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine.
David Lifschitz MBA ’86, Gehr’s longtime friend and current CEO of the Gehr Group, said that Gehr wanted to help other patients by finding a cure to blood cancers, even though he wouldn’t live to see the benefit.
“Norbert didn’t want any fanfare associated with his gift. What he wanted was to make a difference to other patients and he trusted these two doctors to use the funds for the greatest good,” Lifschitz said. “That silent generosity characterized his life. He often helped employees and others through personal gifts, such as paying for funerals or unexpected medical expenses, without taking any credit.”
Born in Brazil to a Jewish father who fled Germany in the 1930s, Gehr spoke in a video interview of his journey as a self-made man. He recalled quitting his job at age 25 and selling his prized Cadillac convertible to launch his first business — an industrial supply firm — in the San Fernando Valley.
He grew that business and ultimately built multiple successful companies under the Gehr Group umbrella with diverse interests such as New York hotel properties, electrical cables and defense intelligence systems. He called himself a born optimist who loved the challenge of business and never shied from risks.
Among the hundreds of people he employed, many worked for him for 30 to 40 years. The Gehr Group is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
“Most people at Gehr worked with Norbert in the past and wanted to keep working for him. He was very loyal to his employees and like a father figure to some,” said Mark Goldman, chief operating officer of the Gehr Group. “He was a person who dreamed about something, then made it happen.”
Goldstein, Gehr’s longtime physician, said the gift will create a new Center for Implementation Science at the Keck School of Medicine that will coordinate efforts across the entire university to improve patient care in a scientifically rigorous manner.
“It was a privilege to care for Norbert Gehr for some 30 years. Not only was he a corporate giant, he was a leader with great optimism and compassion. He demonstrated great loyalty to his colleagues and employees,” Goldstein said. “Mr. Gehr was much more than a generous philanthropist; he shared his generosity of spirit to all who met him. The Gehr Foundation’s gift will provide an enduring impact on health care delivery in its support of innovative medical interventions.”
O’Connell is grateful that Gehr and his family are supporting research at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“Mr. Gehr was an inspiring man with incredible vision, an exemplary work ethic and a constant desire to push boundaries,” O’Connell said. “I am so proud of his loyalty to our wonderful USC Norris family, especially our nursing staff, who cared for him with their unique blend of warmth and skill. This gift from the Gehr Family Foundation comes with an immense responsibility and through hard work, innovation and tenacity, I believe we can use it to make major breakthroughs toward curing AML.”
Gehr is survived by his four children, Crystal, Max, Robert and Andrew, and two brothers, Richard and Leo.
This legacy supports the Campaign for the University of Southern California, a multiyear effort that seeks to raise $6 billion or more in private philanthropy to advance USC’s academic priorities and expand its positive impact on the community and world. Four years after its launch, the campaign has raised more than $4.3 billion.
— Lynn Lipinski