MONTEBELLO — George and Catherine Hensel have received exemplary service from Beverly Hospital over the years, so they're showing their appreciation--with a $1-million endowment.
The donation of cash and land to the Beverly Hospital Foundation, a nonprofit corporation that raises funds for the hospital, was announced Thursday. It is the largest donation ever to the 212-bed, nonprofit general hospital, said Clyde Harwood, executive vice president of the foundation.
"It's Cath's and my way of saying thanks for how we've been blessed, and to pass on these blessings to help other people in the best way we know how," said Hensel, who along with his wife, the former mayor of Montebello, owns the Monterey Park-based California Driving School.
The gift from the Hensels--who amassed their multimillion-dollar fortune through the popular driving school and real estate investments--is worth at least $1 million, Harwood said. Most of the donation, which includes a 19-unit apartment building in the Montebello Park area, will be turned over to the foundation in the next two years, George Hensel said in an interview last week.
Interest and earnings from the endowment will be given to Beverly Hospital each year, and the board of directors of the hospital will have full power over the income, Harwood said.
The endowment "will mean an increased ability to replace essential buildings and equipment and will assist in staying abreast of state-of-the-art technology," said K. E. Blake, chief executive officer and administrator of the hospital.
While it has not been decided how the funds from the endowment will be used, some are likely to go to a new maternal-child health care unit, which will be named the Hensel Maternity Center, Blake said.
Ground breaking on the $2.5-million project is to begin in February. The hospital runs on an annual budget of about $40 million, Blake said.
The hospital's second largest donation--$85,000 in property--came last year from doctors Aziz and Deanna Khan, who are on the Beverly Hospital staff, Harwood said. Aziz Khan is a heart surgeon and Deanna Khan is a pediatrician.
The Hensels said it was the first-rate care their family has received over 21 years that led to their donation.
One of Catherine Hensel's 22 grandchildren was born at Beverly, and her son, Raymond Cinders, died there at the age of 42 after being treated for a yearlong illness. Catherine Hensel has four children from a previous marriage, and George Hensel has two.
"With the care, compassion, the understanding and the techniques, I think Beverly Hospital is one of the best hospitals in the country," she said.
The Hensels' is a Horatio Alger story: lead turned to gold with hard work and a kind hand along the way.
George Hensel, 62, grew up in the years of the Great Depression. His mother worked for the Works Progress Administration as a seamstress and his father was a streetcar conductor when work was available. George Hensel roamed the country searching for work after serving in the Merchant Marine in World War II. He earned a bachelor's degree in business in 1953.
"I've been so broke I had to sell my blood for $5 a pint to eat on," he said of the postwar years.
Catherine Hensel knew hardship when her first husband, Frank Cinders, died in 1950, leaving her with four children.
Started School in 1953
"If people hadn't helped me I never would have made it," she said.
But the Hensels' fortunes changed after they started the California Driving School in 1953. The school received a shot in the arm from the state, which began requiring that driving schools and their instructors be licensed.
"Overnight, half of the (competing) schools folded, never to open again," George Hensel said.
The growth of the school, one of the largest in the nation, coupled with real estate earnings, made the Hensels rich. They now own four firms dealing primarily in traffic safety and real estate, and have interests in three others. Most of their income comes from about 800 apartment units in California and Florida, George Hensel said.
The Hensels, longtime area residents, have been involved in numerous business and civic activities. The Hensels both serve on the Beverly Hospital Foundation board of trustees. They entered electoral politics in the 1970s.
Catherine Hensel was elected to the Montebello City Council in 1976 and became the city's first woman mayor in 1979. She left the City Council in December, 1985, after deciding not to seek reelection.
State Senate Candidate
George Hensel ran for the state's 26th Senate District seat in 1978 and finished second among five candidates for the Democratic nomination. A fiscal conservative, Hensel embraced Proposition 13 as the centerpiece of his campaign. The 26th District, represented by Sen. Joseph Montoya (D-Los Angeles), includes both Montebello and Monterey Park.
Catherine Hensel, who describes her age as over 60, said that as she got older she realized it became increasingly important to do something positive with her fortune.
"I've provided for my three children. Knowing how much need there is and wanting to help people, I decided to give away as much as I can," she said. "I'm not going to take it with me because there aren't pockets in shrouds--as they say."
George Hensel took a more pragmatic approach.
"I want to make sure that when I go (to Beverly Hospital), or my family goes there, or the public goes there that they have the very best technology in the medical field," he said. "My own life is at stake."
The Hensels have made $10,000 and $20,000 donations in the past, but this was their first "major gift," George Hensel said.
"I never dreamt that I'd be in a position to give away a million dollars," he said. "We both feel it will be considerably more (than $1 million) as time goes on, but that's to start."