Home / Sections / People behind the science / Lester Crown’s Story

Lester Crown’s Story

A true American tale

People behind the science

Date: September 28, 2014
Weizmann Magazine Vol. 5

Lester Crown likes to say that his approach to philanthropy and his approach to business management are identical: Invest in the best management. Trust them to make the right decisions. Then, instead of telling them what you want, find out what they need.

This philosophy has not only guided Crown as head of his diverse family business and as principal shareholder of defense giant General Dynamics, but it has also inspired a steady stream of major gifts from the Crown family to the Weizmann Institute over the years, starting with their earliest gift, for the Crown Immunology Fund, in 1984 and including the Crown Human Genome Center, opened in 1998.

The scientific advances resulting from the Crowns’ generosity have been numerous. The Crown Photonics Center, established in 2008 with a generous gift from the family, for instance, funds research into light and its interaction with matter. The center “has positioned the Weizmann Institute at the forefront of a hot, growing field that is important both for basic physics and for applications ranging from information science to medicine,” says Prof. Yaron Silberberg, who heads the Center. “It is very admirable that a donor appreciates the importance of basic research and realizes that sometimes this is the best ‘gamble’ if your wish is to have a long-term impact on humanity in the broadest possible way.”

In step with the latest priorities of the Institute, the family’s most recent gift was the first major commitment to the new Israel National Center for Personalized Medicine (INCPM). As Vice Chair of the International Board, Crown works closely with the Weizmann Institute’s management, and sits on the Institute’s Executive, Assets and Management committees. He was awarded a Ph.D. honoris causa from the Institute in 1990. The Institute benefits greatly from the business savvy that has served him and his family well. “Lester’s philanthropy is unique: He gives, and then he gives you the feeling that he owes you,” says Prof. Daniel Zajfman, President of the Weizmann Institute.

The Crown family gives generously to many causes: education, the arts, civic, environmental and social causes, Jewish organizations and Israeli entities. He has had friendships with generations of Israeli leaders, and he has also come to know some of the leadership in the Gulf countries, where he has spent a good deal of time. As an active leader in Chicago civic life, Lester became an important and early supporter of President Barack Obama. In voluntary roles, he helps makes Chicago go: he led the committee to expand Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and led its business community in the county’s establishment of a major new hospital. The list goes on. He is a major donor to his alma mater, Northwestern University, where he established the Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies and, last fall, a new chair in Israel Studies, in addition to many other gifts.

The Crowns’ relationship with Weizmann Institute goes back decades; the Institute has been part of his life for so long that he can’t quite pin down the exact date. His friend and fellow Chicagoan Robert Asher (a former President of ACWIS) introduced him to then-president of the Institute Prof. Haim Harari in the early 1980s. “I was impressed with Prof. Harari and the high standard of research at the Institute. So it was natural to add the Weizmann Institute to the list of things we were doing in Israel,” he says. He continues: “The Weizmann Institute is a spectacular organization. It is a major part of the tremendous contributions that Israel gives to the world. Israel’s intellectual gifts are illuminating the whole world.” “I have known Lester Crown for 25 years,” says Harari, now Chairman of the Davidson Institute of Science Education at the Weizmann Institute. “I have yet to see one case in which he will not respond with passion, sensitivity, generosity and smile to a request or a need of the Weizmann Institute or of the State of Israel. He is one of those pillars of strength and wisdom that an Institute like ours must rely on.” “Lester is a dear friend and a true visionary,” says Prof. Doron Lancet, the Ralph D. and Lois R. Silver Professor of Human Genomics, head of the Crown Human Genome Center. “Fifteen years ago he grasped the significance of genome research. We all are indebted to his continuous generosity, which has helped advanced genomics at Weizmann and in Israel.”

The family’s involvement in Israel began in the 1930s, when his mother became active in Hadassah; both his parents, in addition to Lester, his brothers and most of his children, were good friends of the late mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek. “Everyone realized that the establishment of the Jewish state was a miracle,” says Crown, explaining his family’s original impetus for giving to Israel. “But the fact that it has thrived and has given so much back to the world in the face of everything that has happened to it is an even bigger miracle.”


An American story

The Crown family history is a true rags-to-riches tale. Lester’s grandparents, Arie and Ida Crown, left their village in Russia around 1890, arriving in Chicago by horse and cart. They came “with absolutely nothing,” says Lester. His father, Henry, and uncles Irving and Sol, founded Material Service Corporation in 1919. Starting with relationships with a few contractors, Material Service grew to become the largest supplier to the booming Chicago construction industry. By 1928 the company’s supply yards dotted the Chicago metropolitan area, and its barges, tugboats and trucks hauled supplies throughout the Chicago area. The company survived the Depression and, as America’s road and housing infrastructure boomed in the post-World War II era, the company thrived. In 1959, it merged with General Dynamics. The Crown family work ethic was legendary, as was their reputation for business honesty and loyalty to associates. New York Times columnist David Brooks has called Lester Crown an “exemplar of humility.” Lester says his father was the source of these qualities. He calls his father “probably the finest human being I’ve ever known,” and says that he had “ingenuity and a moral compass, and he was willing to work very hard.” His relationships with people were paramount to him, Lester says. He was humble, often giving others credit for his own ideas, which enabled him to accomplish a great deal. All the Crown children in Lester’s generation worked from the earliest age possible, most of them in the family business.

Lester was born in 1925, the middle of three boys. His first job with the family business came at age 12, as an office boy. “I made 30 cents an hour, which was 5 cents under the minimum wage for children then,” he recalls. So, I got a raise to 35 cents.” He continued working for Material Service throughout high school and in college summers, primarily in demanding physical tasks in the sand and gravel pits and quarries. “The toughest job I had was periodically driving an old chain-drive Mack truck and unloading sacks of cement,” he recalls. He earned a B.Sc. in chemical engineering from Northwestern in 1945 and an MBA from Harvard University in 1949. His father volunteered in World War II and attained the rank of Colonel. Lester’s mother, Bea, died young, in 1943, of cancer.

Material Service’s success spawned other family investments, including, in 1951, Henry Crown’s purchase of the Empire State Building which he later sold. Henry Crown’s successes reinforced his belief that in America anything was possible if you were willing to work for it, and he transmitted this markedly Midwestern work ethic to his children. Lester gradually took over the leadership of the family businesses in the 1980s. Henry died in 1990.

The marriage with General Dynamics, which built the F-16 fighter jet, nuclear submarines and advanced missiles, actually proved to be a mixed blessing, but it launched the investment firm Henry Crown & Company, and Lester Crown with it, into an international, diverse business world that extended around the globe. Lester became President of Henry Crown & Company in 1969. He now presides over the family business empire together with a number of other family members. The company’s holdings include stakes in the Chicago Bulls, the New York Yankees, the Aspen Skiing Company, JP Morgan Chase and Rockefeller Center in New York, in addition to General Dynamics. He served as a director and chair of General Dynamics Executive Committee and has been on the boards of a number of other major corporations.


Family traditions

All seven of Lester and Renee’s children - Steven, James, Patricia, Susan, Daniel, Sara and Janet - absorbed the family traditions of work and philanthropy from their parents and grandparents. Two of his sons, Steve and Jim, are the senior officers of Henry Crown & Company, which also includes two sons-in-law in major positions. All are involved in philanthropy. “We are intensely proud of all of them,” he says.

Lester’s commitment to Weizmann has touched the Institute in myriad ways. In the 1990s he helped organize two “Air ACWIS” missions to jet major Weizmann supporters to Israel, with stopovers and meetings with King Abdullah II of Jordan. He was also one of a handful of International Board members on the search team that recruited Prof. Daniel Zajfman to be president of the Institute in 2006. “I saw a capable administrator with vision and humility, and yet a backbone of steel,” recalls Lester. When asked to assess the next generation of American Jewish donors to Israel, Crown says he’s impressed with what he sees, particularly from his perch in Chicago. However, their relationship with Israel is a very different one than that of his and his parents’ generations. “We lived through the Holocaust and the struggles to found the State of Israel. We have a deeply emotional attachment to Israel,” he says. “For this new generation, the connection is more intellectual. They have many interests and passions. They need to connect with Israel in a new way.” He thinks the scientific research of the kind pursued at Weizmann and the “other tremendous gifts that Israel is giving back to humanity” are the inspiration. The challenge for all institutions in Israel, he adds, is to find a way to reach this generation.


A history of giving to the Weizmann Institute by the Crown family

• The Crown Endowment Fund for Immunology Research, established in 1984, provides research grants for immunologyrelated studies.

• The Crown Endowment Fund for Brain Research, established in 1989.

• The Crown Human Genome Center opened in 1998, five years before the worldwide human genome sequencing effort completed the first-ever sequencing of human DNA. The Center has enabled Weizmann researchers to become world leaders in elucidating the mysteries of the human genome; in particular they have been innovators in organizing genetic information in an easy-to-use yet powerful database known as GeneCards. In collaboration with physicians in key hospitals in Israel, their research has led to the identification of the genetic cause of six monogenic hereditary diseases of Israeli populations (Ashkenazi Jews, Bedouins and Persian Jews, for example). This information is now available for genetic counseling.

• The Crown Photonics Center, established in 2008, funds research into light and its interaction with matter. With its help, Weizmann researchers have been able to generate pulses of light shorter than one femtosecond. Photonics Center researchers are engaged in studies that range from faster lasers to new ways of capturing light energy in photovoltaic cells.

• The Crown Institute for Genomics, established by the founding gift of the Israel National Center for Personalized Medicine and a natural extension of the Crown Human Genome Center, will enable the advent of high-throughput sequencing analysis of whole genomes or large sections of DNA, to pinpoint the underlying causes of disease.