Joseph Zilber built homes on 3 islands
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
Joseph Zilber amassed a fortune building homes, offices, nursing facilities and other properties in his native Milwaukee, across the Sun Belt and in Hawai'i.
But it was what he did with that fortune that made him a beloved figure wherever he traveled.
Zilber died Friday in Milwaukee at the age of 92.
"He was the quintessential gentleman," said Kevin Roberts, chief executive officer of Castle Medical Center and one of Zilber's many friends. "He was very generous, very cordial. He was also very unassuming and unpretentious. But he was the ultimate businessman, as well."
In an interview with BizTimes Milwaukee in 2007, Zilber recalled his first real estate deal, in which he sold a north side home for a $100 loss.
"That was just about the end of the world for me," Zilber said. "But it taught me a lesson. It taught me that I cannot build one house. I'd have to build hundreds of houses, thousands of houses if you were to make anything out of the real estate business. So we went on and did that."
Zilber founded Towne Realty (now operated under Zilber Ltd.) in 1949 and went on to build thousands of houses for soldiers returning from World War II.
Zilber later expanded his business to include construction of office buildings, movie theaters, industrial parks and nursing homes in Milwaukee, and condominiums, resort timeshare properties and other projects in California, Arizona, Texas and Florida, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Zilber expanded his business to Hawai'i in the 1970s under Towne Development of Hawaii Inc. His first jobs here were for the federal government, including classified communications facilities in Ha'ikū and Barbers Point and housing projects at Kāne'ohe Marine Corps Base, Āliamanu Crater, Schofield Barracks and Hickam Air Force Base.
Towne Hawaii later expanded to residential projects, including Keauhou View Estates, Ali'i Heights and The Shores I and II on Hawai'i, Launani Valley on O'ahu and Ke Ali'i Kai and Kilohana Ridge on Maui.
In 2007, Zilber pledged $30 million to the Marquette University Law School for scholarships and $10 million to help found a school of public health at the University of Wisconsin, according to the Journal Sentinel. A year later, he formed the Zilber Neighborhood Initiative, committing $50 million over 10 years to improve 10 low-income neighborhoods in Milwaukee.
And when his granddaughter, Melissa Jackson, was preparing to give birth at Castle Medical Center three years ago, Zilber chipped in a half-million dollars toward a $1.2 million renovation of the hospital's birth center, named the Vera Zilber Birth Center in honor of Zilber's late wife.Zilber lived much of the year in Hawai'i.
On Monday, after a prolonged battle with pneumonia, he returned to Milwaukee and spent his final days in a hospice that his company built.
"He loved people, he loved the community and he loved construction," Roberts said. "He touched a lot of lives and he will be dearly missed."