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Generous to a Fault or Faulty Generosity?

Zell Kravinsky gave away millions, then a kidney. He's tempted to give away his other one.

November 30, 2003|Jerry Schwartz | Associated Press Writer

JENKINTOWN, Pa. — Zell Kravinsky doesn't get it. He has tried, he says, to live a moral life. How could he be the bad guy?

Starting from nothing, he made millions -- and then gave millions away to save human lives.

Then, this summer, he relinquished something more precious. He donated one of his kidneys to a complete stranger, a poor woman who had struggled through life.

And yet, he has suffered insults and attacks -- by Internet posters, like the man who called him "a nut job." By newspaper columnists, like the one who questioned his motives.

"Generous man or heartless lunatic?" read the headline.

Kravinsky is befuddled. "I'm not generous and I'm not insane," he says. "Maybe the sanest thing I do is to give things away."

Perhaps the hostility has something to do with the way Kravinsky sneaked out of the house and to the hospital on that July morning so that his wife, Emily, could not stop him. She feared that he was risking his life and that one of their four children might need that kidney someday. His actions imperiled his marriage.

Perhaps it has something to do with some of the inflammatory things Kravinsky said in the spotlight's glare. No one should have two houses when people were homeless, he said, and no one should have two kidneys while others struggled to live without one. And he suggested that he might consider giving his other kidney to someone who would better serve humanity.

Which would, of course, be the end of Zell Kravinsky.

"I should just give all of me to those who need me, whether it is my body, my money or myself," he says.

The things Kravinsky does, the things he says, make some people uncomfortable. He is somewhere out there alone on the far outreaches of altruism, and logic leads to one of two conclusions: Either he's crazy, or everyone else is selfish.

"Maybe it's a kind of rationalization, but at some point, we get comfortable with what we're doing for other people and we say, 'That's enough,' " says Barry Katz, a friend of Kravinsky's.

Kravinsky has never reached that point. Katz says his friend's very existence forces the question:

"If you could do more, and you're not doing it, why not?"


Donnell Reid cannot understand the criticism -- but then, Zell Kravinsky's kidney is at work inside her, allowing her a normal life after eight years of dialysis. To her mind, her benefactor is a hero, while his detractors "aren't willing to put their neck out for someone they don't know."

But she, like nearly everyone else, doesn't understand what drives Zell Kravinsky. "It baffles me," she says.

"Zell's a very complex man," says James Kahn, a friend since 1969, when they were sophomores at Philadelphia's Central High School. "You talk to him for just a little while, you realize that he has all kinds of interesting facets, some of them seemingly contradictory."

When Kravinsky was 12, he picketed Philadelphia's City Hall, demanding that low-income housing be built in the city's very white Northeast, where his family lived. "It didn't endear me to my neighbors," he says.

Coincidentally, that same year, Kravinsky bought his first shares in the stock market.

His mother was a teacher, his father a printer with radical leanings. Their son skipped a year of high school and a year at Dartmouth, where he got a degree in south Asian studies; at the University of Pennsylvania, he got doctorates in rhetoric and Renaissance literature.

He would teach at Penn, but only after spending seven years in the slums of North Philadelphia educating emotionally disturbed kids.

But by then, he was taking a capitalist path as well. He bought a small apartment building in the Northeast and rented it to blacks, although he says neighbors broke its windows and defaced it with graffiti. Still, he made "a small profit" and began buying, fixing and selling properties around the Penn campus in West Philadelphia.

"He always lived in the worst apartment of his worst building," Katz says.

Eventually, he would buy and sell other, larger properties and invest in sophisticated real estate instruments.

"The fellow who puts a dollar in and gets two out is very excited. What excites me is to put $1 in and get $1.01 out" over and over again, at little or no risk, he says.

He bought and sold shopping malls, large parking lots, distribution centers. "I was on a tear, I was shooting the moon."

The millions piled up, but the Kravinskys do not act like millionaires. They live in an older twin home. Kravinsky drove a battered '86 Toyota, giving it up for a minivan only when friends expressed fears for his children's safety.

"We were constantly encouraging him to spend a little more of his money and make his life and his family's life a little more comfortable," Katz says. "Buy a new house, a new car, go on a vacation, buy his wife a present."

He wouldn't listen. From the very beginning, Kravinsky says, he had a grand plan: He would make millions, and then give them away.

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