A man who shied away from the spotlight all his life but spent a life never shying away from helping others. South Africa’s “Man of Steel’ philanthropist Eric Samson passes away in the USA
By David E. Kaplan
“Eric was a visionary leader and nation-builder and a man of unsurpassed generosity, one whose multifaceted legacy will benefit our country long into the future,” voiced the South African Jewish Board of Deputies in a statement following the passing of South African steel magnate and philanthropist Eric Samson who died at his Newport, California home on Tuesday at the age of 83.
No less a beneficiary of his generosity was the State of Israel.
The founder and majority shareholder of the Macsteel Group, I recall last speaking to Eric at the funeral in Cape Town in 2009 of his good friend, the steel industrialist, Mendel Kaplan. They had been more than good friends. While partnering in many shared interests in the steel industry, it was their partnership in collective causes that they left their mark in making the world a better place. Eric stood right behind me at Mendel’s funeral service at Cape Town’s Pinelands Jewish Cemetery, shocked and devastated and said that he was on board his private plane flying to Europe when he heard the news and related how he immediately asked the pilot to change the flight path and “head to Cape Town.” That was Eric – decisive at being where he feels he needs to be.
He has been like that together with his wife Sheila with causes in South Africa and Israel.
In South Africa “Innumerable organizations and individuals benefited from his support throughout his life,” revealed the South African Board of Deputies in a statement. A great friend of the late South African State President, Nelson Mandela, Eric served on the board of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund for two decades and donated to it every July to mark the South African leader’s birthday.
In Israel, the Samsons ‘directed’ their generosity to such causes as Keren Hayesod that had been established in 1920 to serve as the fundraising arm of the Jewish People and the Zionist Movement, the Barzilai Medical Center, the Eric and Sheila Samson New Emergency Surgical Hospital in Ashkelon, the Samson Assuta Ashdod Hospital, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, the South African retirement home in Herzliya Beth Protea, and the Eric and Sheila Samson Prime Minister’s Prize – a prestigious international award, launched in 2013, which grants a million dollars annually for groundbreaking innovation in the fields of smart mobility and alternative fuels for transportation.
I attended the sixth ceremony of The Eric and Sheila Samson Prime Minister’s Prize held on the 29th October 2018 at the Hilton Tel Aviv Grand Ballroom as part of Israel’s 2018 Smart Mobility Summit.
I could not help feeling proud both as an Israeli for what my country was achieving for all mankind, and as a former South African, for the contribution of its Jewish community in enriching the State of Israel. And in the quest to “transform transportation”, it all began a little over six years ago, explained the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, “with ONE phone call to my friends Eric and Sheila in South Africa.”
Aiming to reduce 60% of Israel’s oil consumption by 2025, the Prime Minister revealed his concerns to the Samsons that “we have to free the world from the stranglehold of oil and the biggest culprit in the consumption of oil is transportation.” Therefore, persisted the PM persuasively, “we have to work on transforming transportation.” In pursuance of this vision, the PM appealed to the Samsons to consider sponsoring an annual prize that would not only help reduce the world’s dependency on oil but would further help revolutionize mankind’s modes of transportation.
Peering upon the large audience from across the globe that included delegations from 36 countries, including all the states of Europe, Israel’s Prime Minister bellowed proudly:
“It took only 60 seconds for Eric and Shelia to answer with one word – YES!”
A co-recipient of the Samson award was Prof. Doron Auerbach of Bar-Ilan University for his contribution to breakthroughs in the field of battery development that included the development of advanced batteries for electric vehicle applications. “Every electric car anywhere in the world is partly powered by our research,” said Auerbach in accepting the prize. “I feel great pride for Israel.”
Israel’s then Minister of Science and Technology, Ofir Akunis said,
“We are changing the world. Israel is investing in the future and our Ministry could not ask for a better partner in this critical mission than Eric and Sheila Samson who have made this possible through their contribution towards the Prime Minister’s Prize. We know from our history, knowledge is strength and when used properly, we can make the impossible – possible!”
The South African retirement home Beth Protea would not have been “possible” were it not for Eric saying “YES” to a vision that skeptics said was “impossible”. It was not too long after that then President of South Africa and future Nobel Peace Laurette, F.W. de Klerk laid the foundation stone to Beth Protea during his visit to Israel in November 1991.
Enter Beth Protea today and there in the lobby, hangs a large portrait painting of Eric amongst the other founding fathers. What began as a “vision” over a quarter of a century earlier, this South African ‘flower’ flourished to emerge as the benchmark of excellence in caring for seniors leading in the ensuing years with the name ‘protea’ resonating across the land as its ‘seeds’ sprouted with other retirement complexes carrying the brand name. Such is the impact of a man who said “yes” to the callings that touched his heart.
And on the question of “heart”, one could have asked 106-year-old Avraham Barry who made an incredible recovery from heart surgery at the Samson Assuta Ashdod University Hospital. The hospital’s oldest patient, Avraham who had immigrated to Israel from Yemen as a young child with his family only days after his surgery, returned to his home in Ashdod.
In a statement from Keren Hayasod at the time, “Eric and Sheila Samson, through Keren Hayesod, have provided unparalleled support for patients like Avraham by giving residents of the periphery greater access to healthcare and advance medical facilities.”
His namesake in the Bible, Samson, was noted for his great strength. Such too was this softly spoken ‘Man of Steel’ who impacted the lives of many – young and old. He will be sorely missed.
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