‘Coincidences’ of life? Hardly!

Have you heard about Lottie and Howard Marcus?
Well, Israel has!
They’re gone now, both of them, but they gave the Jewish State a gift that will last forever.
The Marcuses met in America, young people who fled the Holocaust before it was too late. Which for both their families, it was; at their marriage in New York, only one of Howard’s three sisters was still alive to celebrate with them; all the rest of their relatives had died at the hands of the Nazis.
Seth Siegel told their remarkable story in a recent Wall Street Journal article.
“The Marcuses lived quietly and frugally,” he wrote.
Their big indulgence was an occasional ski vacation with a friend. But that friend happened to be Ben Graham, known for years before his 1976 passing as “the father of value investing.” It was natural for the younger couple to ask him for some financial advice; it was fate that he recommended they meet with a student of his at Columbia Business School, a young man he called “a prodigy.” And so Howard and Lottie came to entrust their savings to Warren Buffett, making them among the earliest investors in Berkshire Hathaway.
A long time ago, I read a little book called The Millionaire Next Door, about people who live such ordinary lives that their neighbors and friends don’t even know about their extraordinary wealth. The Marcuses could have been that book all by themselves; over many years, they amassed many millions that nobody was aware of.
In retirement, Lottie and Howard met a representative of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The couple had believed for a long time that more water might mean much to the Middle East; after learning about desert farming and desalination, they gave generously to the school’s Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research. But this major gift didn’t even dent their fortune. So when Howard and Lottie were 95 and 89, respectively, they flew to Israel (in coach, Siegel noted!) to scout out what they might do with the rest of their estate.
Like many Jewish refugees, the Marcuses were grateful to the country that had given them safety and a good life. But they also believed that an Israel before World War II would have saved many, many more, and they wanted to assure such safety for the future.
Siegel writes, “A strong and secure State of Israel, they believed, would have saved their families from the Nazis, and was essential for the future of the Jewish people. They often told friends that if Germany — ‘the most civilized nation in the world,’ in their words — could descend into barbarity and the mass murder of Jews, it could happen anywhere…” And so they willed many millions, the bulk of their estate, to Ben-Gurion, specifying that the money be used “to further research into improving water management, conservation and irrigation for drylands agriculture.”
Howard Marcus died in 2014; Lottie followed last December, and their great gift is now being disbursed, more than doubling the university’s endowment and positioning the school as a world center for water research.
The Wall Street Journal headlined this article “A Legacy That Won’t Run Dry.” Its writer was a natural to tell the story of the Marcuses: Seth Siegel had already written a book Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World published in 2015 by Thomas Dunne/St. Martins.
More and more, I truly believe that “coincidences” are really occasions on which God has some special intentions, but prefers to remain anonymous. Was it “just” coincidence that Lottie’s first job in America brought her into contact with financial guru Benjamin Graham? Or “mere” coincidence that Graham put the Marcuses together with young Warren Buffett, whose magic touch with money has brought him, at age 86, to head a company with businesses that generate some $1.5 billion in cash every single month? I don’t think so!

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