Ira Gordon, Pittsburgh’s dedicated patron and celebrated philanthropist, passed away March 2 of complications from surgery. He was 92.
For nearly nine decades, Gordon observed life with particular vantage. As a child in Cleveland, he admired local barnstormers.
“From an early age, he was fascinated by flying,” said his son, Peter Gordon.
Several years later, Ira Gordon himself took to the skies. Upon America’s entry into World War II, Gordon enlisted as a pilot in Pensacola, Fla. Following training, he served with distinction as a torpedo bomber pilot in the Pacific theater.
When the war ended, Gordon continued flying.
“He would take the family to summer camp and short family trips — Maine or Washington, D.C., or places like that,” said his son. “He had a propeller plane for business and pleasure.”
In business, like flying, Gordon successfully navigated various ventures. In 1950, he began Swift Homes, a pioneer among prefab housing companies. In 1982, he created General American Corporation (GAC), a mortgage settlement company. Eighteen years later, he sold the business to a national venture capital firm. Following that, Gordon began investing in startup companies and real estate.
“He was a very good businessman, had some very good businesses,” said Dr. Sidney Busis, Gordon’s contemporary.
While aviation and business occupied much of Gordon’s interest, philanthropy served as his lasting testament.
“Anywhere I ever went, I would see his name listed in the higher categories [of donors],” said Blair Jacobs, a friend of Gordon’s for the last 20 years. “He was a great guy, extremely philanthropic.”
Together with his wife Nanette, Gordon supported much of Pittsburgh. Such causes included the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, Allegheny Valley School, the City Theatre, Pittsburgh Symphony, Carnegie Museums, American Jewish Museum and Rodef Shalom Congregation. For years, Gordon also supported the Technion, Israel’s oldest university.
“Ira and Nanette established two important endowments at the Federation Foundation,” said Jeffrey Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. One endowment supports the Pacesetters event, which honors and recognizes those who make a minimum commitment of $1,000 to the Federation’s annual campaign. “Ira and Nanette both believed that we should acknowledge and thank our donors and encourage more people to give at that level.”
The other endowment is the Ira and Nanette Gordon Community Professional Achievement Award, an honor bestowed upon a professional in the early years of his or her career who has demonstrated outstanding service to the Federation, its beneficiary agencies and the Jewish community.
“Ira and Nanette know how important our professionals are to our work in the Jewish community. It really means something to them, and it means a lot to the Jewish community,” said Finkelstein.
Dan Marcus, executive director and CEO of Hillel Jewish University Center, won the Ira and Nanette Gordon Community Professional Achievement Award in 2004.
“Receiving the award certainly gave me a sense of achievement and appreciation for the work that I do,” he said.
A decade later, Emily Richman received the 2014 award for her work as Federation’s assistant campaign director.
“I have a warm place in my heart for all of the Gordons,” she said. “It is such a nice honor.”
Peter Gordon explained that his parents created both endowments because “tzedakah and philanthropy was a way of life for my parents.”
“Jewish philanthropy and philanthropy in general was something they believed in strongly, and my mother still does,” said the son. “That is the singular message they passed on. They didn’t sit us down and say anything to us, we just saw that they did it and that’s how we learned.”
While philanthropy served as one mechanism for Gordon to exert communal influence, lunch served as another. For years, Gordon entertained countless individuals while seated at Table 11 in the Carlton Restaurant in downtown Pittsburgh.
“All the people he entertained here, young [people], entrepreneurs … he was a businessman until the end,” recalled Janet McClelland.
As hostess of the Carlton for the past 30 years, McClelland spoke regularly with Gordon.
“A lot of times we had real serious conversations,” she said.
McClelland fondly remembered that without her knowing, Gordon often snuck her tips using the rare $2 bills.
“Just to make him smile, he would say, ‘Check your coat, two dollars,’ ” said McClelland. “We just joked back and forth, we were friends.”
McClelland and Gordon often addressed the past. Once, McClelland brought Gordon an article describing her uncle’s military service in Iwo Jima during World War II. Gordon, who had flown over Iwo Jima, told her, “The guys on the ground were the heroes. We weren’t the heroes, your uncle was the hero.”
“He was always a gentleman,” said McClelland. “He was just a wonderful person, he loved everybody on an equal basis.”
In Gordon’s later years, he frequented the restaurant less. Yet, to the surprise of many — even himself — Gordon arrived at his once regular haunt on the Friday before his passing. McClelland explained that Gordon’s nurse made a point of bringing him back to the Carlton.
“We spent some time with him,” said the hostess. “He didn’t know he was coming here, and he was happy to see us.”
Gordon’s table was still there. The spot where Gordon met with so many to plan Pittsburgh’s future overlooked a window out onto Fifth Avenue.
“It’s really hard to put anyone else at that seat because it’s Ira’s table,” said McClelland. “He was amazing, he was a piece of Pittsburgh. He had the vision enough to see the city and help it grow his way.”
Gordon is survived by his wife of 65 years, Nanette Lhormer Gordon, his sons Scott (Ilana) Gordon, Peter (Robin) Gordon and his daughter Jill (David) Stein. He is also survived by eight grandchildren, one great-grandchild, and a niece, Karen Kessler.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.