Remembering Marvin Weissberg

It is with profound sadness–and with immense gratitude for an extraordinarily well-lived and exemplary life– that the Weissberg Foundation mourns the passing of Marvin Weissberg, our founder, who died on May 17, peacefully, at his Annapolis home, at 94.

A beloved, revered, and impactful figure in the Washington community (and in Annapolis and Key West), Marvin was, literally, a builder. He was a civil engineer, an expert in bridge-building, whose real estate development activities helped connect Washington and Northern Virginia and transform them from inert, racially stratified backwaters into dynamic, multi-ethnic progressive communities. And he was, in the literal sense of that word, a philanthropist. Marvin truly loved people, of all kinds. He was always talking to strangers—in elevators, movie lines, political fundraisers, and Key West cafes, and made friends wherever he went at every stage of his life’s journey. His financial generosity was part of a larger generous, democratic spirit —a disposition to see and treat other people as equals, to see the best in others, and to help them in times of need, in ways that respected their dignity. For all the substantial, carefully thought-through grants he made to organizations doing socially necessary work, many of Marvin’s “major gifts” were modest sums he quietly gave or “loaned” to countless family members and people who had helped him in some way, to lift some hardship they faced or ensure their children had access to educational opportunity. Marvin brought to everything he did the same qualities —an incisive mind, innate curiosity and love of learning, integrity, a sense of fairness, and a fundamental optimism—that enabled him to achieve success in business and civic affairs.

The Foundation is an important part of Marvin’s legacy and an expression of Marvin’s core values, his own gratitude for the generosity of others that contributed to his success, his desire to make his community and the world a more just place and extend to others opportunities that enriched his life—as well as his hope that his family would remain connected to him and to one another, in pursuit of these aims.

Although the arc of Marvin’s life lends itself to a “rags to riches” narrative, Marvin rejected the identity of the “self-made man”, or the rugged individualist bent on success. Marvin’s early circumstances were indeed difficult: He was born in the Bronx in 1926, the youngest of his immigrant parents’ five children, whose already precarious economic situation worsened in the Depression. He could recall packing their belongings in pre-dawn hours to stay ahead of rent collectors. But that difficult experience did not seem to scare or embitter him. He had happy memories of playing stickball in the street and roller skating into Manhattan rather than paying the five-cent subway fare. Marvin’s story of finding ways to support the family—as an eight-year-old, he snuck into office-building stairwells on hot summer afternoons to sell ice cream to workers—has a cheerful, win-win quality, more so, given Marvin’s life-long love of butter pecan. Marvin’s temperament and the world-view that emerged from his Depression-Era upbringing were Rooseveltian: Marvin had deep sympathy for people in dire straits through no fault of their own; he had an immense belief in public interventions assistance—crediting his own success to the extraordinary education he received in New York public schools, the Army, at the University of Maryland under the G.I. Bill.– a buoyant, lifelong optimism that “happy–days” would soon return –especially if the Democratic Party was in power.

It was in Washington, DC that Marvin would make his life and fortune and his greatest impact. When the Weissberg family moved there in 1940, in the hope that defense mobilization would increase demand for his father Max’s services as a tailor, Washington, long a sleepy Southern town, was beginning to stir. Marvin’s initial impressions were not positive: The high school where he enrolled (and graduated from as a gangly 16-yar old) was racially segregated, and most of his teachers were patronage hires, beholden to the Southern Congressmen who ran the District’s government for decades. (To get some idea of Marvin’s longevity, his phys. ed. teacher was Red Auerbach.)

After serving in the Army and earning an engineering degree from the University of Maryland—and a series of abortive attempts to find work in other parts of the country– Marvin returned to Washington in the 1950s, hoping to make his way in commercial real estate. His big break came when John Thompson of the Southland Corporation engaged “Weissberg Brothers” (just Marvin, really) to scout Virginia locations for the company’s fast-growing 7-11 business. Marvin quickly grasped that the “other side of the Potomac” was fertile terrain, not only for convenience stores, but for office buildings and residential towers. He set out to realize that vision—wooing skeptical investors (he still had no money of his own), buying up land from oil storage companies and plumbing suppliers, overcoming the resistance of the reactionary, corrupt, and racist forces that had long held power in Arlington and persuading (relatively) progressive actors that the future lay in attracting the vanguard companies of that day. Within a decade, and in substantial part through Marvin’s diligence, salesmanship, and acumen, Rosslyn was transformed; the patchwork of pawn shops and unloved industrial parcels had, by the late 1960s, given way to gleaming 12-story Weissberg-built office buildings filled with employees of IBM, Honeywell, RCA, and DARPA, connected to Washington, physically (by the Roosevelt Bridge and eventually Metro), economically. In a very real sense, the seeds of the dynamic, multi-ethnic and politically progressive Northern Virginia of today were sewn in these early efforts.

The defining features of Marvin’s success there — creativity, integrity, innovation, and a commitment to business deals where all sides walk away happy — were the hallmarks of his decades-long business career, which included developing prominent Northern Virginia properties like The Weslie, the Normandy and London apartment buildings, and the Flour Mill on the Georgetown Waterfront.

For decades, Marvin contributed significantly to nurturing and sustaining Washington’s theatre community. In the 1950s, he performed as an actor at Theatre Lobby, Washington’s first racially integrated troop, which staged performances in the alley behind St. Mathews Cathedral (Marvin remembered that after-show meals were a challenge because no nearby restaurants would serve them). Later, he was asked to join the Board of Arena Stage. where his main contribution was to Living Stage, Arena’s social justice company, which he helped secure its own home on 14th Street. When the Shakespeare Theatre was near collapse, he joined its Board and secured its move to Lansburgh, and, as a board member, provided a guiding hand when the Studio Theatre was developing its three-building complex. Even for the Washington theaters on whose boards Marvin did not serve, he was an avid audience member and generous donor, providing vitally needed support to Woolly Mammoth in particular.

Marvin initially established the Weissberg Foundation in 1988 as a more formal expression of his personal gratitude and solidarity with those excluded from opportunities and artistic enrichments from which he benefitted. In recent years as its assets increased, its mission became more focused on racial justice, beginning with a three-year, million-dollar 2016 initiative that convened Washington theaters to help build more racially inclusive leadership and creative teams, and attract more representative audiences. The Foundation then committed itself to becoming an anti-racist organization in both its grantmaking and its operations. Though the vocabulary was unfamiliar, Marvin, in his 94th year, actively participated in race equity training and was encouraged that the Foundation was meeting the challenges of the present day.

Marvin was also deeply involved in advancing democracy and justice internationally. A sophisticated, self-taught student of international affairs, Marvin took special pride in establishing the Weissberg Program in Human Rights and Social Justice at Beloit College, which provides residential teaching fellowships to leading practitioners and scholars in the field of international human rights. That program helped propel the small midwestern liberal arts college to the top rank of all higher education institutions in terms of the percentage of graduates working in the Peace Corps. For more than two decades starting in the 1980s, Marvin served as Treasurer and a founding member the Board of the National Democratic Institute. He helped guide its efforts to develop relationships with democratic activists from the Philippines to Chile to then-Czechoslovakia, engaging in election observation missions and supporting programs on women’s political leadership across borders.

He was a stalwart supporter of the Democratic Party, working as an advance man on Adlai Stevenson’s 1952 campaign and Hubert Humphrey’s in 1968, and attending every Democratic Convention from 1960 until 2008 (though his D.C. residency kept him from being able to vote in a presidential general election until 1972). While he harbored deep concerns about the corrupting influence of dark money on our political life, Marvin exhibited a nearly infinite tolerance of political fundraising events. For a longshot Democratic senatorial candidate hoping to harvest a few $500 checks, there was no happier sight in Washington than to glimpse Marvin on a receiving line.

To dwell on these biographical details–affiliations involvements, achievements, and contributions is to risk obscuring experience, qualities, and relationships that made Marvin’s life so happy and successful and make his loss so painful for so many.

Nothing was more important to Marvin than family and friends. For decades, he gathered weekly with a group of friends to discuss important issues of the day. Amazingly, even into his 90s, he formed meaningful, new friendships with people much younger who came to know and cherish him. He lived life every day gracefully and on his own terms, defying every expectation anyone could have for someone of his age. Into his 90s, he was saying yes to kayaking through mangroves, playing charades with his grandchildren, traveling to Cuba; until his very last days, Marvin read the Washington Post and was determined, as he was throughout his life, to learn new things and reflect on and discuss the great issues of the day.

He was, until the end, surrounded by the love of his daughters, Nina Weissberg and Wesley Weissberg, his stepdaughter Courtney Morris, his grandchildren and his beloved dog Cooper. 

Tamara Copeland
Tamara Copeland

Chair, Independent Trustee

In 2019, Tamara retired as president of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers where she envisioned and implemented “Putting Racism on the Table”. Currently, she co-facilitates The Onion Dialogues, a racial justice training. In 2018, her memoir, Daughters of the Dream: Eight Girls from Richmond who grew up in the Civil Rights Era was published. Her latest book is REVEALED: A Once a Week Reading on Racism, Prejudice and Bias. She loves walking and traveling, having visited all fifty states and countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, and South America.