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Despite health scare, Gene Epstein remains a philanthropic force of nature


Gene Epstein was dying.

The 85-year-old Bucks County philanthropist, whose giving heart has helped make the world around him a better place, was certain of it.

Epstein lay in a bed at St. Mary Medical Center in Middletown Township last month. An adverse reaction to amoxicillin, a penicillin antibiotic, had exacerbated a dire condition with his kidneys that was getting progressively worse.

This is a generous man who for decades has donated millions of his fortune from his success as a car salesman, real estate investor, and other ventures to as many as 15 humanitarian organizations and also to individuals whose lives have stalled on the losing side of life’s scoreboard.

Epstein knows how to read a room. Combined with his age and five cardiac arteries jammed with plaque, he believed the closing credits on his wonderful life were rolling.

He picked up his cell phone.

“Gene called me from the hospital,” said Erin Lukoss, executive director and CEO of the Bucks County Opportunity Council, which Epstein has supported for years.

“He said, ‘My time has come. I’m checking out.’ He thought that was it,” Lukoss recalled.

Epstein thought about his final resting place, a pre-chosen spot on his sprawling, 36-acre rural homestead, a pristine plot upon which a headstone inscription reading “Tough but Caring” could be viewed by his wife, Marlene, from inside their home.

Among other phone calls from that hospital bed was one to those who handle his financial affairs.

Not for himself.

But to ensure his philanthropy would continue long after he is gone.

Getting up to give

The God to whom Epstein says he prays is also one he questions.

“How good of a God could it be to let the things happen that happen in this world?” he wondered recently at his home.

“I could go down the list. What happens, especially to children, doesn’t seem fair. That’s why we all need to do more, to step in.”

Epstein is seated on a couch in a room half-framed by windows and dotted with framed paintings, mostly of horses. Nearby is a grand piano that goes unplayed; the sweet music for him is the framed photo of Marlene from a half-century ago that rests upon it.

Gray haired and bearded, Epstein presents as one who is 20 years younger. Remarkably fit, he is dressed in black pants, a black T-shirt that peeks out from beneath a light green, button-down oxford shirt. His crossed legs reveal sneakers and red, white and blue socks adorned with the head of an American eagle. He talks about his philanthropy:

● Paying for food and housing for the less fortunate.

● Handing out $100 bills to folks in need during and after the pandemic.

● Funding Bucks County Community College scholarships to Lower Bucks County students in financial need.

● Funding a Bucks County Opportunity Council program that provides assistance to those in need of food and shelter.

● Establishing a program called Wheelz2Work, which encourages the donation of vehicles to low-income families who need safe, reliable private transportation to work or school. The program is operated by the BCOC in partnership with BCCC and the Gene and Marlene Epstein Humanitarian Fund. Since its inception, more than 500 vehicles have been donated.

● Selling his expensive automobiles — some once owned by the likes of Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison — to fund humanitarian projects.

● Dropping a $5,000 check in the mail to help a Buckingham family whose home required retrofitting after the husband and father was diagnosed with ALS.

● And so many more.

Despite his generosity, Epstein is troubled by a sense that he hasn’t done as much as he could.

“I’ve already given half of (my money) away yet I feel I haven’t done enough,” he said. “It’s honestly my biggest problem.”

Epstein’s humanitarian reach extends beyond Bucks County’s borders.

In his native Philadelphia, he funds “Project Home” with the establishment of the Epstein Street Medicine Program that supplies a van with a nurse and an assistant to have emergency service with medicines to reverse drug overdoses in Kensington.

In Los Angeles, he funds a food bank that transcends its own religious roots in Judaism to provide food for all regardless of religious beliefs.

In Pittsburgh, he funds a program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center that pays the deductibles that organ transplant recipients are unable to.

Epstein recalled driving down a street in Bordentown, N.J. where he had a car dealership. He noticed an elderly couple pushing the wheelchair of a young boy along the sidewalk.

“I ran out and gave them $100,” he said. “Then I wanted to get more information about them. I did. And they went on our list to get $150 a month every month until they died.

“I was happy to help them.”

Said Marlene Epstein: “I don’t know what Gene would do if he wasn’t helping people. It’s the reason he gets up in the morning. I’ve known him all my life. He’s always cared about others.”

But Bucks County is predominantly where his focus of helping resides.

During the height of the pandemic, when COVID-19 cases were soaring and St. Mary Medical Center was short on N95 masks, Epstein picked up the phone, called the CEO of The Home Depot, and secured 450 masks, along with protective suits and other gear.

During Thanksgiving, he purchases hundreds of turkeys and distributes them in the poorer sections of the county.

Epstein feeds their souls as well. At the Peace Center in Langhorne, he funds programs designed to reduce bullying, prevent violence and promote peaceful resolutions at schools throughout Bucks County.

Epstein’s giving nature was in overdrive — even as he was certain what he was feeling in that hospital bed was the cold hand of death.

Late last month, he was too ill to hand out $100 bills to the first 300 people to show up to the Fresh Connect free farmers market in Bristol for those experiencing food insecurity.

Meanwhile, Lukoss was planning a big 85th birthday party for him.

“Gene told me to forget about the party,” she said. “Instead, he said I should fill in for him at the farmer’s market.

“I asked him to do a message for the people since he won’t be there. He made up a little flier about it being his 85th birthday and stuck them in the envelopes with the money.”

Lukoss said that on the flier was a message that if people wanted to send Gene a birthday greeting, they should send the cards to the opportunity council.

“The notes came in droves,” Lukoss said. “People thanking Gene for the money. People saying they weren’t sure how they were going to buy a birthday present for their grandchild, but now they can. People saying they can buy food for the week now and get their car repaired.”

And then there was one woman whose actions typified Epstein’s giving spirit. Her 84th birthday was approaching. She decided to observe it by taking the $100 she received from Epstein, match it with money of her own and donate it to a charity.

“Gene,” Lukoss said, “sparks things in people to give back.”

His bucket full to overflowing, Epstein shares the water with those with parched throats. He recalls inviting children with mental and physical disabilities to his home during the winter holidays. He hired Santa Claus, donated gifts, and arranged for a tractor ride for the kids. The joy on their faces sent Epstein’s heart soaring.

And feeling somewhat guilty.

“I get such a thrill out of helping people,” Epstein said. “It sustains me.

“But I have mixed emotions. Am I doing all this just because of how good it makes me feel? I feel guilty sometimes.”

Some words of wisdom from an old friend — the late Princeton University Director of Alumni, Donald W. Griffin — assuaged Epstein’s gnawing guilt over feeling bad for feeling good.

“He told me that giving anonymously is the biggest fallacy in the world,” Epstein recalled.

“He said that nobody emulates someone doing good if that person does it anonymously. There’s nobody to tie it to. Publicity takes the cover off it. He said that when I do this, my business picks up and I make more money to help more people.”

Griffin looked Epstein in the eye.

“So,” he said, “tell me what’s wrong with that?”

For perhaps the first time in his life, Gene Epstein didn’t have the answer.

A philanthropy that’s filial

Epstein’s giving nature finds its roots in his upbringing. His Jewish grandparents owned a candy store in a neighborhood rife with antisemitism. Despite their windows being smashed, they donated to the local Catholic Church at a time of need.

Epstein’s father, Samuel, also helped local residents in need, all the while unbeknownst to his wife.

“I never forgot that about my father,” he said. “I’m blessed with my mom and dad’s genes. They were both caring people. And also my grandparents were caring people.

“When I’m doing things to help people who need it, I think of them often. I’m just doing an extension of what they did when I was growing up. They always said that as long as we have enough on our table, we should share with those who need help.”

Epstein is asked his opinion of others in his financial position who don’t share his philanthropic bent. The anger is evident in his eyes.

“They’re just greedy (expletives),” he said. “I don’t understand them. They have more than they’re ever going to need. They can help so many people but choose not to.

“They’re detached from reality.”

Make like a tree and give

The midday sun was shining upon Gene Epstein, who ordered death to wait. He is a man who has dined with English royalty and counts U.S. Presidents as friends, but feels most at home among those who need him most.

Epstein looks out and points to a group of trees on his property. So many trees, so many lessons to learn from them.

“Why can’t we be more like them?” he wondered. “They share water. When some trees aren’t getting enough water, the trees with more than enough share the water through their roots. Why can’t people share what they have with those who don’t?

“Wouldn’t that be something?”

This is the first in a series of occasional articles highlighting what drives local philanthropists to give and the causes they support.

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