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The gifted who keeps on giving

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

By Dan Majors, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

About 12 years ago, Zell Kravinsky was a thirty-something Renaissance scholar and poet, lecturing at the University of Pennsylvania. Then he started doing a little investing, putting money into parking lots, warehouses and a shopping center near the Philadelphia campus.

After giving away millions of dollars to strangers, tomorrow Zell Kravinsky will donate one of his kidneys to a stranger. (Steven M. Falk, Philadelphia Daily News via AP)

Next thing you know, old Zell's a millionaire.

Funny thing about him, though. He never really wanted to be a millionaire. Seems he'd always fancied himself as a philanthropist.

The trouble with philanthropy is that you have to have something in order to give it away.

Well, Kravinsky had it. In fact, as he told Rose DeWolf, a reporter with The Philadelphia Daily News, he had "$15 million burning a hole in my pocket. I wanted to give it all away."

Last October, he decided to donate $6.2 million to the CDC Foundation, which supports the work of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was the largest individual contribution to the foundation in its seven-year history.

He talked it over with his wife, Emily, a psychiatrist, and their four children. They were all for it. Well, except for his son Eli. But Eli's only 3.

Kravinsky told CNN that he wanted the donation to help fight an insect-carried parasitic disease that kills thousands of poor Latin Americans living in huts. He figured that that was a better use of his money than "a bunch of high-tech toys that I'm not really interested in."

Still, money isn't the solution to every problem.

So yesterday, Kravinsky, a 48-year-old white real estate investor living in Jenkintown, Pa., donated a kidney. With the specification that it be given to a low-income black person whom he didn't even know.

"It's the moral thing to do," he said, because that segment of the population has "the greatest need."

"Because of genetic factors that go from one generation to the next, African-Americans are less able to obtain kidneys from a family member," he told the Daily News.

The kidney recipient, a woman, was selected by Philadelphia's Einstein Medical Center, where the surgery was performed.

"Two hospitals turned me down when I said I wanted to donate it to a stranger," Kravinsky said. "But Einstein agreed. I had to convince them why I was doing it: because it is logically and morally compelling to save someone's life if you can."

The Associated Press reported last night that Kravinsky and the anonymous woman were both resting comfortably following surgery.

Now, this column is running a little longer than usual, but I wanted to mention how rare such altruistic donations really are. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, of the 46,261 kidneys taken from living donors since 1988, only 133 were given to strangers. And all of those were in the past five years.

People haven't really warmed up to the idea of giving their kidneys away.

"I've gotten into fights with a lot of friends about this," said Kravinsky, whose wife -- the psychiatrist -- threatened to divorce him.

"She thinks I could die and leave my children fatherless," he said. "I don't want her to leave me, but I have to do this."

He might be missing a kidney. But he still has plenty of heart.

Oh, wait. Would you mind giving me that one note back?
Jared B. LaChance made a donation of his own at a bank in Munhall last month. Police said he went up to a teller and gave her two pieces of paper. One was a note demanding money. But the other had his name, address and phone number on it.

Money doesn't grow on trees. But it can help the parks
Too bad one of those millionaire philanthropists can't help our 12,000-acre parks system with the $122 million it needs to spend to repair and upgrade the aging infrastructure. But seven brave souls have stepped forward to do what they can. They're the members of the Allegheny County Parks Commission.

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