Skip to comments.FIU'S BIGGEST DONOR WAS A BOY WITH HOLEY SHOES (long but interesting read)
Posted on 12/11/2005 10:38:12 AM PST by nuconvert
FIU'S BIGGEST DONOR WAS A BOY WITH HOLEY SHOES
The man who pledged FIU's single largest donation is filled with ideas and energy, yet he hasn't forgotten the tattered shoes of his boyhood.
BY GEORGIA TASKER
Herbert Wertheim is an inventor, pilot, philosopher, philanthropist and university trustee.
He also is a charming storyteller. ''Telling stories produces endorphins in me,'' he said. ``I love my life.''
As the self-made multimillionaire optometrist/entrepreneur who has pledged $20 million to Florida International University for its proposed medical school, his fast-paced stories reflect a many-faceted man.
He has worked his way up from poverty to enormous wealth, from a school boy ashamed of dirty feet because of holes in his sneakers to a man with 100 pairs of ''good stylish shoes'' in the closets of his seven homes.
He arises at 3:30 or 4 in the morning to read five newspapers, take an online course in whatever has snared his interest or work on the design of new eyeglass lenses. His electrons, neutrons and protons are positively charged enough to carry him at the speed of light through the day, but at the dinner table he occasionally nods off for 10 or 15 minutes -- a quirky habit that his family and friends have come to expect -- to awaken recharged.
Not bad for a 67-year-old man who never got a high school diploma because, hampered by dyslexia, he had such trouble reading as a child.
It was dyslexia, in part, that led him to many of his discoveries. As an optometrist-inventor, he pioneered dyes for plastic sunglass lenses and, in a parallel serendipity, found that tinted lenses can be used to help dyslexics read better.
Today, a whole line of lens tints can be prescribed by eye doctors for dyslexia because of Wertheim's work. More recently, he has created lenses to slow the progress of macrodegeneration of the eye.
But it was his tints for sunglasses and lenses that revolutionized eye wear. He invented a tint to protect eyes against ultraviolet light. His business, BPI, which stands for Brain Power Inc., has captured between 70 percent and 85 percent of the world market in plastic lens tints, chemicals and instruments. He holds more than 100 patents and trademarks.
BPI, located in Miami and just outside of London in Rugby, England, still is privately held, and Wertheim won't divulge its worth. Nor, he claims, does he know how wealthy he is. ''But I can keep feeding us,'' he said. ``I'm worth enough so I can make significant gifts in the future.''
For the present, Wertheim's $20 million pledge to FIU's proposed medical school is the largest in FIU history.
When FIU President Modesto ''Mitch'' Maidique met Wertheim 20 years ago in a delegation of businessmen visiting Argentina to offer financial advice to President Raul Alfonsine, he said, he invited Wertheim to join the FIU Foundation.
''There was very good chemistry between us,'' Maidique said. ``He has tremendous respect for education, science and the process of invention.''
In the 1990s, the Wertheims paid for the construction of the biology department's glass conservatory and computer-wired classroom next to it, and they stepped in with more than $1 million when the school ran out of money to finish the performing arts center. That building not only bears the Wertheim name, it houses an enormous pipe organ given in memory of Wertheim's mother, Sydell Ida.
''He has vision about a lot of things,'' said Nicole Wertheim, his wife of 36 years.
Vision is quite literally Wertheim's stock, trade and gift.
In many ways, struggles to tame words on a page made irregular by dyslexia shaped his life, as did the drive to move away from a place where the shower was outside and the toilet downstairs in his father's Hollywood bakery, the now-defunct Beach Bakery, next to the Hollywood Beach Hotel.
When he was unable to master his school work, Wertheim built up a childhood history of truancy and running away from home. Some of his stories give little glimpses into a boy escaping to the Everglades and gigging frogs, a kid living by his wits but eventually hauled before a juvenile judge who gave him two choices: reformatory or the Navy.
He chose the Navy, where he learned he wasn't stupid, and he found his love of engineering.
On a recent December day, with his wife by his side because he has spent fewer than 50 days away from her in their 36-year marriage, he indulged himself in spinning stories from morning until dusk, telling his history and outlining his vision for FIU's proposed school of medicine.
''Being with Herb is like being on a rocketship of ideas,'' Maidique said. ``He himself will tell you that most of the ideas aren't any good, but he comes out with gems on a regular schedule. It could be anything from landscaping, to the curriculum, to the medical school, to where we spend our money. Anything.''
Dr. Jeffrey Horstmyer, chief of neurology at Mercy Hospital and chairman of FIU's Council of 100 that promotes the school through business and cultural connections, said Wertheim's ideas about the proposed medical school are widely shared. ''The idea of preventive medicine resonates with everyone,'' he said.
Wertheim foresees a school of medicine that will train local students for local work, a school that takes a holistic approach to medicine with programs for nutrition, preventive medicine, a school of public health, and a dozen community medical centers.
The medical school is no sure thing.
The state's Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, will consider approval of the school in March.
He proposes a 24-hours-a-day television channel devoted to healthcare to be beamed out from the school and hopes the medical school would become a National Cancer Center added to those already funded by the National Institutes of Health.
WORKING FOR CHANGE
He finds plenty of things to fault about the current healthcare system, but pulls himself up short: ``I don't think it's enough to bitch; you have to change the system.''
He has devoted his life to changing things; that's how he spends his capital, which to him is time.
``What defines us as humans is what we do with our time. It's our common denominator. We have a finite amount.''
He and his wife ``try to go where no one else has been before so we can make a difference.''
Such pronouncements do not make him less approachable or likeable.
He has sufficient memories of the long climb up to make him almost gleeful about his view from the top, and he shares the missteps as well as the leaps forward.
During his impoverished childhood, when his German immigrant father ran the bakery, he was allowed one pair of shoes a year.
''I couldn't have shoes that cost more than $5,'' he said.
One year when he was in elementary school, his sneakers developed holes in the sides. At school, he was asked to remove his shoes from his sockless feet to be weighed. ``I had to take my shoes off, and my feet were dirty. I remember all the kids saying I was dirty. I ran away and hid at a church until dark. It marked me. It was one of the saddest moments of my life.''
''That's why we have to be very sensitive with children,'' Nicole Wertheim said. ``And that's why he's so motivated.''
After four years in the Navy, Wertheim returned to Miami and briefly sold Collier encyclopedias door-to-door before getting into Brevard Community College. He had to take a Florida high school equivalency test before he could graduate from college.
Summers, he took physics courses at the University of Florida and worked for General Dynamics and NASA. He earned bachelor of science and doctor of optometry degrees from Southern College of Optometry in Tennessee.
Bob Breier, an attorney who helped Wertheim set up his foundation, said that in the early years Wertheim was ``probably the most unsuccessful optometrist in Miami.''
His wife had left Paris to travel and find a more exciting life.
After they married, the couple lived on a 22- by 52-foot houseboat with leopard-print walls, a red kitchen sink and black countertops but no other appliances.
''Very '60s,'' Nicole Wertheim said.
A broom from Sears served as a place to hang clothes.
At his office, Nicole Wertheim worked as his bookkeeper and assistant.
''She wrote everything in French,'' Wertheim said. 'I said, `Nicole, this is true job security' because I couldn't [read] anything in French.''
When a friend in 1969 told Wertheim about 2 ½ acres on Killian Drive for $16,000, he rushed over and gave the real estate agent a check for $2,000 without seeing the property.
''I no more had $2,000 than the man in the moon,'' he said. 'I went to University National Bank and said to my banker, `Tom, I might be going to jail.' ''
A signature loan saw him through. The Wertheims then set about building their own house. They rented a crane on the weekends for $25 an hour. ``I'd pick up the crane and drive it, and Nicole would follow in the car . . .''
''At 20 miles an hour,'' she joined in.
''And we put the steel in place,'' he said.
Eventually, the house with a 135-foot conservatory was sold for a house in Gables Estates.
Fortunes improved when Wertheim got into the business of tinting glasses and sunglasses -- and inventing the machines and chemicals.
Early on, he sold tint formulas to another company for $20,000 and the promise of royalties.
With the $20,000 he bought a sailboat, but the royalties never appeared. So in 1971, he started Brain Power Inc. as a consulting business to optometrists.
He discovered how damaging ultraviolet rays from sunlight can be to eyesight, so he developed UV 400 Tint, which deflects UV rays in glasses. He invented and patented machines to apply the tints, clean contact lenses and clean even sensitive equipment for NASA.
Savvy investments with the success of BPI have made Wertheim a 15 percent stockholder in Heico, the Hollywood aerospace and engineering company, a major stockholder in Ivax, the generic pharmaceuticals concern, and in other technology companies.
The sailboat has morphed into a yacht called Brain Power, and Wertheim is on the board of directors of Sea Keepers, a nonprofit group of yacht owners that collects scientific data on their boats for universities and governments.
A ranch purchased 20 years ago in Eagle Valley, Colo., was to give his daughters Erica and Vanessa a taste of agrarian life. The girls learned how to grow vegetables and take care of animals.
When they began skiing, the family bought a house in Vail.
The Wertheims ate dinner with their girls every night at 7.
Breakfast, too, was a family activity, with beds being made beforehand. Wertheim always cooks lunch and dinner, and these days many meals include lycopene-loaded tomatoes and curry for ``cognitive agility.''
Erica and Vanessa, in their early 30s, are married and live in California, and the Wertheims spend a lot of time traveling.
Their jet-setting life began in 1991 when, as a shareholder in American Airlines, Wertheim bought a $750,000 pass for unlimited first-class tickets for the rest of their lives.
'I'll say to Nicole, `Would you like to go to Paris?' and we write our own ticket,'' he said.
Both Wertheims are pilots. For his 70th birthday, with his wife's OK, Wertheim is giving himself a private jet so sleekly designed it looks like an F-16 fighter. He carries its picture in a Blackberry.
''People ask me how to become a multimillionaire,'' he said. ``My response is first you make a million dollars. Then you do it again and again and again and again.''
Inspiring read. Thanks!