Milton Gralla ‘King of matching funds’
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Milton Gralla ‘King of matching funds’

Community mourns death of an activist philanthropist

Marla Cohen is a freelance writer. She lives in Rockland County.

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Milton and Shirley Gralla

The philanthropist Milton Gralla of Fort Lee and Boca Raton, Fla., died on July 11. Those who knew him say that Gralla, who turned a journalism career into a multimillion-dollar trade publication business, was generous with both his money and his time, and that he never forgot his humble origins. He was 84.

Gralla was not passive in his charitable endeavors, say people who knew him. He gave liberally to a variety of causes, from those which promoted the education and professional growth of young journalists to those which provided basic connections to Jewish life. For him, however, “writing the check was the easy part,” according to his son, Dennis. What he really enjoyed was doing the hard part – the work that ended in results.

That is because he wanted to help make the causes he supported “more intelligent, more thoughtful,” said his friend Julie Eisen, the former president of the YJCC in Washington Township. “You could always count on him for money, his advice, and when things were really bad, he could tell terrific jokes.”

The YJCC, which bears the names of Milton Gralla and his wife, Shirley, appealed to them, Eisen said, because it provided a “Jewish place where the entry was across the full spectrum of the Jewish world.”

That desire to affect lives broadly, regardless of Jewish affiliation, age, or origin, was the filter through which Gralla viewed his philanthropic endeavors. Among other efforts, he funded weddings for Jews from the former Soviet Union who never had an opportunity to marry under a chuppah. He helped set up what is thought to be the first fund to fight terrorism in memory of his friend Leon Klinghoffer, who was murdered by Palestinian terrorists aboard the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985. In the 1990s, he and his wife chartered a $250,000 “Freedom Flight” to resettle Jews from the FSU in Israel; he and his wife accompanied the 270 new olim on the El Al flight from Budapest to Tel Aviv.

While he often funded large projects, he had a soft spot for local causes.

“It all started with the men’s club at the Teaneck Jewish Center,” said Shirley, whom he considered a full partner in all his charitable giving. “It was the first shul he had ever belonged to, and he felt part of the community. We didn’t have money right away, but when we did, he wanted to give back.”

It was a lesson he learned from his father, Meyer, a partner in a Bronx bakery. In 1919, fearing for his life, Meyer avoided conscription into the army in his native Poland by fleeing into Germany. He could not get to the United States, so he entered Cuba, then made his way to Vera Cruz, Mexico, and then he finally and illegally crossed into the United States and made his way to New York City. The entire journey took two years. At every stretch of the way, Meyer was helped by what he described as a “sort of Jewish underground” that included a peddler who refused payment for sandwiches that helped sustain Meyer on his way to New York, Gralla told his daughter, Karen Galinko, in an unpublished interview in 2004.

That story made a lasting impression on Gralla, who sometimes joked that he had been paying for those sandwiches ever since. That his father’s life, and by extension his own, might have unfolded differently if he had not been helped by fellow Jews, whom Meyer did not know and who did not know him, gave Gralla the understanding that he should give – and give generously – as soon as he could.

Milton Gralla was born on Jan. 28, 1928, in his home in Brooklyn, the middle son of Meyer and Julia. (She, like her husband, was an immigrant from Poland; her father was a baker.) They moved to the Bronx, but by the time Milton was in third grade they were back in Brooklyn.

There, at Public School 19, Gralla discovered his calling as a journalist. His teacher, Miss Martin, appointed him the sixth-grade reporter for the weekly newspaper The Williamsburg News. She gave him a list of teachers; every week he was to ask them if they had reportable news. For two weeks, they shooed him away. On the third week, he didn’t ask for news. Instead, he asked such leading questions as “Who are the twins in the schoolyard?” and “Why do you give the hardest tests in sixth grade?” Then he’d turn their answers into newspaper articles. Suddenly the teachers who shooed him away now greeted him with “Milton, I have news for you.”

After school, Gralla worked in his father’s bakery, feeling rich if he had 10 cents to spend to rent a bicycle for an hour. When his parents cobbled together money to buy a bike, the boys – Robert, Milton, and Larry – had to share it.

Gralla attended Boys High School and then went on to City College, taking the A train to the Harlem campus. While still in college, he snagged a plum position as a sports stringer for The New York Times.

When he graduated, Gralla wanted to leave New York, so he took the first reporting job he was offered – at the Duncan Banner in Duncan, Okla . There he covered daily life, from minor league baseball, to obituaries, to the goings-on in the oil fields. From Duncan, he moved to the larger daily newspaper, The Tulsa World.

Back home for vacation one summer he decided to go to a ballgame, but he couldn’t get in. Driving back through Prospect Park, he saw two young women who had gotten their shoes stuck in the mud. He stopped to help them. One of the women was Shirley Edelson. That night, he went home and told his mother he had met his future wife. He was not kidding; they were married 32 days later.

While he was still working in Oklahoma, Gralla began a wire service for a variety of trade magazines, including “Drug Topics” and “Tire World.” Back in New York, his wife pregnant, Gralla suggested to his brother Larry, who was following in his footsteps as a New York Times stringer, that they begin a news service on a grander scale by advertising in the trade weekly magazine Editor & Publisher. The two brothers established Nationwide Trade News Service, which supplied news coverage for trade publications by finding freelancers in such places as Birmingham, Dallas, and Atlanta. The news service grew. When Larry moved to Chicago, the brothers opened a second office there.

The Gralla brothers published their first trade magazine, Kitchen Business, in 1955, with an initial investment of $5,000. They bought several other trade publications to add to their stable. These often were failing magazines, including one, National Jeweler, that at the time was so bad Gralla liked to joke it was “running fourth in a field of three.”

Eventually, however, National Jeweler became Milton Gralla’s favorite, in part because the field was filled with Jews, many of whom gave charitably. He moved to Teaneck with his young family, which by the end of the 1950s included his children, Edward, Karen, and Dennis, and became involved in the community.

When he and Larry sold Gralla Publications in the mid-1980s, it had more than 500 employees and published more than 20 titles. Milton Gralla then embarked on a life as a philanthropist, figuring out ways to give away the money he had earned.

“He was the king of matching funds,” said Dennis Gralla; he occasionally even offered those funds to his own children. When Dennis got his first job in a gas station and had to buy car insurance, his father agreed to match Dennis’ contribution. “He knew I had a goal and he matched it,” Dennis said.

Milton Gralla used the matching fund gambit with great success, building the YJCC by pledging an amount that was met by members of the community. He employed it as well with other organizations; it is the method he used to help Bris Avrohom, the Chabad-Lubavitch affiliate in Fair Lawn, buy a building .

He wanted to make sure the people who actually would use the buildings or be involved with the various organizations he supported felt ownership in them, according to Rabbi Mordechai Kanelsky, Bris Avrohom’s executive director.

“Mr. Gralla gave us money, but he said, ‘I want to see members of the community match it and I want them to be involved,'” Kanelsky said. “‘This building isn’t one person who just made it, but that it’s part of the community.'”

Jewish causes always touched a chord. Prominent among them was Bris Avrohom, which works with Russian Jews. Before they met, Gralla called Kanelsky, who had never heard of Milton Gralla. Kanelsky asked his receptionist to take a message. Then he got into his car to head out to a meeting and heard a news item on the radio: Someone named Milton Gralla had just put up the money to fund an antiterrorism foundation.

“I went back to the office and I’m calling Mr. Gralla,” Kanelsky said. “He said, ‘I saw your picture in the Bergen Record and I’m impressed with your work in the Russian Jewish community.'” Gralla had a proposal: He wanted to fund Jewish weddings for Russians who had been unable to have them. Kanelsky said he would find the couples.

The first of these weddings, held in the parking lot of the Glenpointe Marriot Hotel in Teaneck, involved 20 couples, several rabbis and cantors, 40 witnesses, and 80 escorts and pole-pole holders. There were 600 guests, including Gralla and his wife. The wedding inspired another guest to fund the next mass wedding. These weddings continue to this day; more than 800 couples have been married in that way.

Gralla remained involved with the organization, revamping its board of directors and serving as its president for 10 years. He convinced Kanelsky to publish a newsletter as a way of reaching donors; Gralla edited the newsletter himself.

He gave his time to many organizations, serving on the boards of directors of Boys Town Jerusalem, where he and Shirley founded a junior high school; UJA-Federation of New York; World ORT, and New York Jewish Week, among others.

Gary Rosenblatt, the Jewish Week’s editor and publisher, said that Gralla was an active and engaged board member when Rosenblatt came to the paper in 1993.

“He had not only the commitment and passion that the other board members shared, but he also had the journalism piece,” Rosenblatt said. Gralla offered practical advice and always “pushed us toward excellence.

“He had a great love for journalism in general and Jewish journalism in particular because he was so involved and cared about the community.”

That sort of involvement appealed to Gralla. He even applied it to one of his favorite projects, the Gralla Fellows Program at Brandeis University, from which his daughter Karen and later two grandchildren graduated. Established in 1998, the program was designed to bring early- and mid-career journalists from around the world to the university for a weeklong program that would deepen their understanding of Jewish life and issues. The program would alternate, bringing participants from the Jewish media one year, and from the secular media the next.

Shirley and Milton Gralla, both Brandeis Fellows, would attend each of the 11 years the program ran, and Gralla would tell his story.

“This was very hands-on philanthropy,” said Jonathan Sarna, the Belle R. Braun professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis, who directed the program. “There are people who write a check and want a report. That was not Milton. He wanted to be involved in the programs he helped fund. He cared deeply about them.”

In that vein, Gralla co-wrote a book, How Good Guys Grow Rich, with Adriane Berg. He wanted to share his philosophy – he believed that that doing good is a financial asset. He hated the title, Berg said, wanting to call it instead, “Why Good Guys Finish First.”

A humble man, Gralla often disliked being honored in traditional ways. He was proud, however, of being a recipient of the Ellis Island Medal, which recognizes the contributions of first- and second-generation Americans.

Once, when Berg questioned him on a radio program about his life’s philosophy, Gralla responded that a person should “do something you do badly every day, and if you get rich, take out the garbage every day.”

“He played golf every day, that’s what he did badly.” To the end, Berg said, he took out the garbage.

Gralla is survived by his wife, Shirley; his sons, Edward and Dennis; his daughter, Karen Galinko, and six grandchildren.

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