Philanthropist Victor Carter Leads by Example

There’s a story that tells a lot about philanthropist-businessman Victor M. Carter. It happened in 1967 when Carter was chairman of the annual United Way fund-raising campaign.

First he raised his own donation from $6,000 to $10,000. Then he found that individuals in other cities were giving as much as $25,000. So Carter talked it over with Leonard Firestone, and the two businessmen each upped their donations to $25,000 and persuaded 10 others to do the same.

Today, says former United Way president Frank McNamara, there are individuals who will give $100,000-plus to United Way, but it was Carter “who started the whole thing, who established a whole new aspect of personal giving (in Los Angeles).”


Acknowledges Carter: “I wanted to set an example.”

Why? And why him? “I don’t know why me. It had to be done and I had the opportunity to do it. So I did it.”


Awards and Honors

Victor M. Carter, 77, is at that stage of life when people start saying thank you. Lots of awards and honors. Recently at a ceremony at Kennedy Center in Washington, he was awarded the Alexis de Tocqueville Society Award, the highest honor given by United Way of America.

He’s a man who can’t be summed up fast. He was 12 when he emigrated from Russia with his family to the United States and still speaks fluent Russian, French and German, plus the Spanish he learned as a teen-ager on the streets here. He was 16 when he quit school to work full-time in his father’s hardware store in downtown Los Angeles, 18 when he married Adrea Zucker (the daughter of a customer) after a five-day acquaintance, and 29 when he went into business for himself, starting a firm that manufactured the then-super modern steel window sash.

He retired for the first time in 1942, a decision prompted by health problems and the changing manufacturing needs of the war years. In 1945, he created a nationwide sales and distribution firm for the building industry, and soon after purchased a financially ailing client, a small hardware store known as Builders Emporium.

In 1956, he retired again--this time “because I had worked very hard and I wanted to clear my mind, get the cobwebs out and think of something new to do.”

Several years later, he acquired controlling interest in a struggling film company, Republic Picture Corp. He became president and chief executive officer and quickly turned the company around. He sold his stock in that company in the late 1960s and has been “sort of retired” since.

Intertwined in all this, for at least the last 40 years, Carter has been a do-gooder.

Some of it is the sort of involvement that brings recognition: presidency of United Way, City of Hope, Japan American Society of Southern California, the Japanese Philharmonic Society, Jewish Community Foundation and the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles; general chairman of the United Jewish Welfare Fund, head of the State of Israel Bond Organization; founder and chairman emeritus of the American Friends of Tel Aviv University and now honorary chairman of the board of Tel Aviv University.

Carter is one of those people for whom giving, both in terms of time and money, is as natural as breathing. He can remember his mother in Russia taking orphaned children on the streetcar to downtown Rostov and buying them shoes.

If he runs his life by any philosophy, Carter said, it’s that “you have to be straight, you have to be lawful, you have to treat every transaction in a fair way. Integrity is very important.”

Other Carter rules emerge in conversation. He never writes letters, always does business by telephone. As early as 1937, he had a telephone in his car.

If he needed land or an office building for business, he was never afraid to buy. Nor was he afraid to sell.

And a really good rule, one that differentiates Victor M. Carter from probably 90% of American businessmen: every year he takes an extended vacation. These days it’s a 90-day cruise in addition to several trips to Israel during the year and regular jaunts to Europe.

‘We Just Keep Moving Along’

There’s a resolute can-do logic about the way Adrea and Victor Carter run their life. No looking back, rather, “We just keep moving along,” he says.

They’ve just finished redecorating their apartment--selling paintings by Impressionist Pierre Auguste Renoir and fauvists Georges Rouault and Maurice de Vlaminck and acquiring several bold Contemporary pieces--because, as Adrea Carter says, “we want to go into the 21st Century.”

They’ve both slowed down a bit, they say. Adrea Carter has pulled away from her principal involvements: the County Music Commission, United Jewish Fund and Aviva Home.

Gertrude Kern, a Carter friend for 50 years and his executive assistant between 1949 and 1965, says, “he’s mellowed. He can be rough, sharp, shrewd . . . he would not suffer fools kindly.”

Carter concedes he is irritated by “stupidity.” And in all aspects of life. Right now, for instance, one concern is why there isn’t more efficient, more logical, use of resources. Food, in particular. This is something the Carters worry about: hunger.

“There’s just got to be a better division of wealth,” Adrea Carter said. Her husband nodded. “We have to take care of people who are needy.”

That would seem to be somewhat of a new area of philanthropy for the Carters.

No, not necessarily so, shrugged Carter. Most of what he’s gotten involved with has been by happenstance. A friend doing something, a need that presents itself. “People ask me and it’s pretty hard to say no.”

He never says no?

Carter laughed: “Sure, I sometimes say no. I’d say no to the Ku Klux Klan.”