By Kevin Madigan | firstname.lastname@example.org
Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus will appear at the Atlanta Scholars Kollel’s 2015 Tribute to Jewish Learning on May 31 at the Georgia Aquarium, where he will address “Concerns for the Future of the Jewish People” in a conversation with aquarium CEO Mike Leven.
The 85-year-old philanthropist spoke to the Atlanta Jewish Times by telephone.
AJT: How are you, Mr. Marcus?
Marcus: Very well. I like your stuff, Kevin. I am reading it, honestly. Having a good time with it. I think it’s very interesting, and you guys are doing a good job.
AJT: Thank you, sir. I want to ask you about some of the things you’re involved in. This event concerns youth learning programs. Why is this important to you?
Marcus: I think all things Jewish are important to me. If we don’t protect our own and deal with our own issues, I think we’re not going to survive this world. So I’ve been interested in Jewish issues all my life, especially with young people. There’s so much intermarriage going on, and we’re losing a lot of our young people — they’re the future of this race. We’ve managed to survive thousands of years, and hopefully we will be able to in the future. I am very, very concerned about that. I’m concerned about the education processes in the U.S. We have universities today where unfortunately we’re seeing a lot of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel feeling. All of these are things I’m interested in.
AJT: What is your involvement with Atlanta Scholars Kollel?
Marcus: We’ve been supporting them for a number of years. We think they do a pretty good job. They are able to teach our kids the value of being Jewish and what it means to be Jewish.
AJT: The Lone Soldiers Program [supporting the Israel Defense Forces] is another interest of yours. There have been serious management problems at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. How do you feel about that?
Marcus: I’m very concerned about how these young kids are being treated here in the U.S. In Israel when a young man is wounded in the service, they take him to the best hospital in Israel or anywhere in the world that specializes in that particular injury. He has an enlisted man and an officer who follow him and make sure he’s taken care of. The parents are always made available so they can be near the child. They really care about what happens with these kids, and so you see the attitude there is different. The government has an obligation to take care of these kids, and they do it. Here in the U.S., they’re the lowest rung on the cord. The VA hospitals are insufficient; they don’t have the staffs. In many cases there are soldiers who are three states away from the nearest VA hospital. They need constant care. They are basically volunteers who say, “I’m going to protect you,” and we’re just not doing it for them. I’m not blaming the Democrats for this. It’s old history. We can take care of them directly, avoiding the VA. Shepherd spinal center in Atlanta is a perfect example. They are experts in taking care of paralysis, of kids with traumatic brain injury. The only issue is the government won’t pay for it. Unlike Israel, it’s the last thing the government worries about. It’s a real failure, and something that affects me deeply. We spend a tremendous amount of time, money and effort to make these things better. There are so many billions wasted every year that could be used for this purpose. It’s really a shame.
AJT: The Marcus Autism Center is active in care and research. Why this particular condition?
Marcus: That goes back 25-plus years ago. We had somebody working for me who had a child with some disability. We didn’t understand what it was in those days. Once you have a child like that, you’re in deep trouble. It’s financially debilitating. The average cost of taking care of one of them is well over $100,000 a year. A middle-income person, they just don’t have this money. When we started this, there was nowhere to take them. The MAC takes care of about 6,000 kids a year. In addition, this foundation started Autism Speaks to help raise money for research that has really helped autism all over the world. There was $50 million originally, and today it’s in the billions. Thankfully, it’s beginning to show some results. You can make their lives better if you get them early enough and start training them on behavioral problems and issues. It’s had a dramatic effect on the lives of the people we’ve touched.
AJT: What are you most proud of?
Marcus: Home Depot is the basis of my foundation and everything I have in my life. They say the 1 percent is destroying America, whereas it’s the 1 percent who is paying for the universities, research and everything else that’s going on, so I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been successful, and we give opportunities to people. Most of the people who came up through Home Depot benefited from the free enterprise system. I can’t tell you how many millionaires we have there.
AJT: What do you still want to accomplish?
Marcus: I want to stay alive. That’s the first thing [laughs]. I want to be a participant. [My wife] Billi and I are very involved in all the things we do. We don’t just write checks. It’s saving lives, educating people, helping establish the right atmosphere for small businesses to grow and create jobs. Hey, listen, I really need a hell of a lot more time, so I’m going to try and stay around and do as much as I can.
AJT: Thanks, Mr. Marcus.
Marcus: Thank you. I’m looking forward to more of your columns.
What: ASK Tribute to Jewish Learning
Who: Bernie Marcus and Mike Leven
Where: Georgia Aquarium, 225 Baker St., downtown Atlanta
When: 7 p.m. Sunday, May 31
Tickets: $54 for up to four family members; www.atlantakollel.org/support_jul.php