A stellar A-list crowd of nearly 900 gathered at the Georgia Aquarium June 9 as a tribute to one man who actually does change the world. A goal to raise $90 million in honor of Bernie Marcus’ 90th birthday was easily exceeded, as the giving continued to $117 million.
Equally impressive was Marcus’ vigor, posture, clarity and stage presence in addressing the crowd in his inimitable style. Politicians, leaders, doctors, scientists and family came from all over the globe to let Marcus know exactly how they felt about him. Among the videos shown was President Donald Trump aboard Air Force One. Visibly touched by the evening, the co-founder of The Home Depot said, “I had to go to the men’s room to wave my arms to confirm that this wasn’t my eulogy.”
Emcee Mike Leven, CEO of the Georgia Aquarium, was the brilliant emcee that kept the evening flowing.
He jumped from the humorous to the sublime by quoting the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty, speaking of the immigration of Marcus’ parents and the touching experience as it pertained to Russian Jews and the more current “waves” today.
Leven recalled how “Bernie wanted to build the world’s greatest aquarium and selling the city on how it would change tourism in Atlanta and sustain itself for the next 100 years.”
He announced that the Georgia Aquarium would permanently name its first Beluga Habitat in honor of Billi and Bernie Marcus, and that colleges, including Georgia Tech and Emory University, would establish chairs in his honor.
On a lighter note, he quipped that Trump should put a 5 percent tariff on Lowe’s goods.
One of the most touching videos was Temple Rabbi Peter Berg at the Western Wall describing Marcus’ philanthropy with three words, “and then some,” as his theme. He then asked the audience to raise hands to bless Marcus.
Home Depot employees appeared on videos recounting how Marcus’ employment allowed them to rear families. A Home Depot cashier described Marcus’ ability to be down-to-earth and mingle with employees. Retiring CFO Carol Tome recalled her interview with Bernie. “He told me to use my charm to woo Wall Street. Then he said, ‘You won’t be doing your job until someone calls you a b****.’ So I said, ‘I can do that too.’” CEO Craig Menear joked, “When Bernie was around, we had to remember three things: Never run out of light bulbs, never run out of nails, and never point a customer to go find something.”
Commenting on politics, Marcus’ granddaughters said, “We avoid all political discussion with Grandpa Bernie because we lose every time.”
The liveliest video was Trump speaking remotely from his in-flight office on his return trip from the 75th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, France. Clad in his red USA cap, Trump spoke of his solid relationship with Marcus and how he often sought out the counsel of the elder businessman. “Bernie has plenty of good advice!” Trump ended by wishing Bernie another 25 to 35 good years.
Leven introduced the night’s entertainment, singer-pianist Michael Feinstein, known for his smooth style in revitalizing The Great American Songbook. Feinberg tried his luck at schmaltzy Jewish humor and decided to stick with music. He plugged Jewish composers, ending with the sentimental “My Yiddishe Momme,” joined by Leven singing the Yiddish.
Arthur Blank, another Home Depot co-founder, began by pointing out the similarities in his life and Marcus’, including being influenced by mothers with few resources, courage, not shying away from problems, wanting to make a difference, and sharing core values. Above all, he said, “I owe him a debt of gratitude. … He is my partner for life.” Blank announced his donation of $5 million to the SHARE Military Initiative at the Shepherd Center and $15 million to The Avalon Fund, providing health services for veterans nationwide.
Bernie shared the story of his unusual birth. His poor mother had crippling arthritis and was told to have yet another child to improve her health. “That child was me.” He went on to praise Atlanta compared to other cities, where “you have to drag people by their noses to get them to help out.
“Just look at the volunteers by the thousands, the Aquarium, Home Depot, seven days a week, the most open-hearted city in the world, and it’s happening at individual stores, … like [just last week] making a walker out of plastic pipe for an ailing child.”
He affectionately referred to wife Billi, “Without her, I would have no life at all. She props me up and keeps me on the straight and narrow.”
He concluded by announcing new charitable endeavors he’s launching, such as research for earlier diagnosis and use of stem cells for autism, new benefits for veterans, and new health clinics that would serve 20,000 veterans in danger of suicide each year.
“Thank G-d for Home Depot,” he ended. “We were put on this earth to make the world a better place. I plan to stay around with the Good Lord’s and my doctors’ help, and if the creek don’t rise.”
Leven announced that $117 million was raised. “Come back for Bernie’s 100th and we will go for $200 million!”