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Obituaries

Don Gevirtz; Democratic Fund-Raiser

April 24, 2001|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Don L. Gevirtz, a venture capitalist and philanthropist who became a major Democratic fund-raiser and was named ambassador to Fiji, has died at the age of 73.

Gevirtz, co-founder the Los Angeles-based Foothill Group Inc., died Sunday, apparently of a heart attack, at his home in Montecito, near Santa Barbara.

After 25 years as head of his asset-lender business, Gevirtz in 1995 accepted a diplomatic appointment from President Bill Clinton as ambassador to Fiji, Nauru, Tuvalu and Tonga. During his 18-month tour in the South Pacific islands, he was credited with attracting more than $300 million in investments by U.S. hotel chains.

In recent years, Gevirtz had become a major benefactor of UC Santa Barbara, donating $1 million in 1996 and $10 million last year to the university's Graduate School of Education, which is now named for him. UC Santa Barbara Chancellor Henry Yang called Gevirtz an "education visionary who helped inspire students, scholars and policymakers."

A four-time delegate to Democratic presidential nominating conventions, Gevirtz was an economic advisor to several key party figures, including President Jimmy Carter, California Gov. Jerry Brown, Vice President Walter F. Mondale and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

Gevirtz raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for presidential candidates.

During Carter's administration, Gevirtz was considered a front-runner for head of the Small Business Administration. But his own investment business, Foothill, was experiencing a sharp downturn. Instead, Carter named him to his Presidential Commission for a National Agenda for the Eighties.

About the same time, Gevirtz published a book, "Business Plan for America: An Entrepreneur's Manifesto." Given its unfortunate timing, the book was derided by some observers who thought he should not be advising others when his own business was sinking.

But Gevirtz and his partner, John Nickoll, saw only a short-lived, if severe, dip in their profits, prompted by early 1980s losses on leasing machine tools to small Texas oil companies.

The two men founded Foothill in 1969 and developed a nationwide reputation for lending money to small, often troubled companies that banks considered too risky. Foothill made loans based on collateral, such as equipment and receipts payable. Although Gevirtz eschewed the term, Foothill was seen by many as the lender of last resort.

Born in Chicago, he grew up in Kokomo, Ind., where he was a forward on his high school basketball team and earned a basketball scholarship to USC. His college athletic career centered on the bench, he often said, but he used the four years well, studying business administration.

Divorced from his first wife, Lillian, he had been married to the former Marilyn Katz since 1967 and was the father of five children.

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