Philanthropist Mort Topfer has never forgotten his roots.
While his celebrated career has taken him far from Brooklyn and made him one very rich man, he says he always remembers where it all started.
The former Dell and Motorola executive—who this month is being honored for a $1 million donation to cancer support organization Gilda’s Club Worldwide—was born and raised right here in Brooklyn.
Mort Topfer, 71, says his Brooklyn upbringing shaped who he is and laid the foundation for his success in business.
“I think Brooklyn was a great place to grow up, and it still is,” Topfer said in a recent interview with this newspaper.
“When you grow up in Brooklyn, you get a lot of street smarts. You get to be able to see into people well and I think that’s been very helpful in my life,” he said.
Born in 1936, Mr. Topfer grew up in the Williamsburg project and later moved to Flatbush and then Canarsie.
He attended Brooklyn Technical High School in Fort Greene. He went on to earn a Bachelor of Sciences degree from Brooklyn College and then later studied at Brooklyn’s Polytechnic University. He holds honorary doctorates from both institutions.
“I think Brooklyn’s a tough place, but I think it gets you ready for all the trials and tribulations that life usually brings to you,” Topfer said.
The Brooklyn native, who now lives in Austin, Texas, is credited with having a large impact on technology communications through his role in the development and popularization of the personal computers and cell phones.
Topfer held several key leadership positions with Motorola for 23 years, before being recruited by Dell Inc. in 1994 to serve as the company’s vice chairman until 2002.
During his time at Dell, Topfer helped turn around the company’s fortunes, leading Dell through a period of rapid growth.
He currently serves as managing director of Castletop Capital, an Austin-based investment firm.
But Topfer is decidedly modest and matter-of-fact when it comes to describing his achievements.
“I’ve been very fortunate business-wise and I’ve been able to accumulate wealth,” he said.
That wealth has opened up opportunities for extraordinary giving and the chance to create social change. In 2000, Topfer and his late wife, Angela, established a charitable foundation.
The Topfer Family Foundation has given away tens of millions of dollars to the arts, education and health care. Most of the organizations that have benefited are in the Chicago and Austin regions where Mort Topfer’s four children reside.
Topfer’s former home of Brooklyn has also profited from his generosity.
“I’ve also been very involved in Brooklyn College and have given a fair amount of money, about $8 million over the past 5 years, funding a cyber café and a foreign library and now I’ve just contributed to the new performing arts center,” Topfer said.
The Topfer family has also used their philanthropic gifts to assist in the fight against cancer.
Cancer support and research is a cause close to home. Topfer’s wife, Angela, passed away in 2003 after a three-year struggle with pancreatic cancer.
In 2002, the Topfer family gave $5 million to The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center for pancreatic cancer research.
“I’ve been involved in the cancer battle for a long time,” Mr. Topfer said.
And so when last year he was approached by Gilda’s Club Worldwide about a new cancer-related venture, Topfer listened and then agreed to open up his wallet.
Gilda’s Club Worldwide has clubhouses in 22 cities throughout North America, including a center in Manhattan.
Gilda’s clubs are home-like meeting places where men, woman and children living with cancer, along with their family and friends, can join together. Programs are free of charge and provide social and emotional support as a supplement to medical care.
Topfer’s $1 million gift will bring new technologies to Gilda’s Club through an online venture called The Living Room. Details of the new program are being kept under wraps until The Living Room is launched later this year.
Mort Topfer will be honored on May 15, 2008, as Gilda’s Club Worldwide hosts its annual gala at Cipriani 42nd Street in New York City.
“Mort’s generous gift will assist as a driving force for change in the cancer support industry,” said Laura Wheat, Chair of the Gilda’s Club Worldwide Board of Directors.
Look for more honors in the future, as Topfer says his giving is far from over.
“I’ve provided for my children and grandchildren, but the rest of my estate will go to charity,” Mr. Topfer said.
He says long after he’s gone, he hopes his foundation continues to change lives and will also bring his children and grandchildren together.
“I think it will be a uniting force in keeping them together and doing things together when I pass on,” he said.
For more information about Gilda’s Club and the upcoming gala event, go to www.gildasclub.org.