It’s nearly impossible to talk about Baltimore history without talking about the Hoffberger family. Natives and transplants alike are aware of the family’s historic ties to the Orioles and the National Brewing Company, former producers of Natty Boh, Charm City’s beloved hometown beer. The Hoffberger name graces buildings on college campuses, hospitals, synagogues and museums across the region.
The family made fortunes manufacturing and distributing ice, coal and fuel oil. They were sole or major shareholders in businesses such as the Baltimore Transfer Company, the Pompeian Olive Oil Company and Grecian Formula as well as real estate developers and supporters of the city’s arts, educational, medical and Jewish communal organizations.
In his new memoir, “Measure of a Life: Memoirs, Insights and Philosophies of LeRoy E. Hoffberger,” Hoffberger, 89, reflects upon his childhood, young adulthood, career and philanthropic endeavors. In the process, he gives readers an engrossing, honest and introspective history of the life of a man, a family and a city.
When he first began to write, in his early 80s, Hoffberger said it was a means of testing his memory. In recent years, he had noticed that he was having some short-term memory lapses, and he wanted to see whether his long-term memory was still sharp.
“When I got to page 100, I said, ‘Hey, I’m getting pretty good at this,’” said Hoffberger. “One hundred years from now, what will my great-grandchildren know about me? They might be able to find information about my education, my professional successes and failures, my philanthropy. But they may want to know who I am, my insights and philosophies, my struggles with clinical depression; what I have done with my life considering both my talents and my disabilities. God puts us on earth for a purpose. How did I deal with the hand that God gave me?”
He grew up in Baltimore, the son of Jack and Mildred Hoffberger, and the younger of two brothers. His father’s grandparents, Sarah and Charles, immigrated to Baltimore from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1881. Jack Hoffberger was one of seven brothers, and by the time LeRoy was born, the brothers had already achieved some success in the business community. The family lived in the Forest Park section of Baltimore, next door to four of Jack’s brothers and their families. As he grew up, the extended Hoffberger family remained closely knit.
“My generation of Hoffbergers had been raised to understand that we were to work in one of the family’s businesses,” he wrote.
After serving in a Navy officers training program during World War II, Hoffberger completed his education at Princeton University. When he graduated in 1947, his father asked him to get his law degree so that he would be qualified to work in his Uncle Sam’s law firm, which provided counsel to the family’s many business interests. Hoffberger agreed, and graduated from the University of Maryland in 1950. Following in his Uncle Sam’s footsteps, he gravitated toward real estate. He made many investments but was most proud of the development of 2,000 acres of farmland in Montgomery County 25 miles northwest of Washington, D.C.
“Today, Germantown,” Hoffberger said proudly, “is the third largest urban area in the state and home to 80,000 people.”
In his role as an attorney, Hoffberger also became active in fundraising for Democratic candidates, helping to get Sen. Barbara Mikulski elected. A highlight in his political career came in December 1973, when he was on President Richard M. Nixon’s “second enemies list.”
“This meant that I, along with 574 other Americans, was to be harassed by the IRS for having played an active role in Sen. George McGovern’s
unsuccessful run for president,” he wrote in his memoir. “My Democrat friends and I considered this a badge of honor.”
Though his career was flourishing, a bout with depression required Hoffberger take time off from his work.
Although he would soon return to his job, Hoffberger’s anxiety and depression required treatment with psychotherapy and anti-depressant medication throughout his life.
His service to the Jewish community was another source of personal pride.
“Soon after I began working for Uncle Sam’s company, I was told that he wanted me to be very active in the Jewish community,” he recalled. “He even told me what board he wanted me to join. It was Levindale [Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital]. I served 60 years on that board, was a board president and am still an emeritus.”
Recognizing that not everyone who was elderly needed to be in a nursing home, he and Bob Weinberg built Concord House, now known as Weinberg Gardens. When The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore created Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc. (CHAI), Hoffberger became the new agency’s first president.
“I was incoming president of The Associated when the battle over whether to open the JCC on Shabbos began,” he recalled. “It was a 30-year battle.”
Although at the time Hoffberger was a Reform Jew, he felt The Associated needed to represent all parts of the Jewish community and feared that opening the JCC on the Sabbath would alienate the Orthodox community.
“It seemed like hypocrisy to me that the JCC was closed on all these obscure Jewish holidays but open on Shabbos,” he said.
After his marriage to his second wife, Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, with whom Hoffberger founded the American Visionary Art Museum, he became more interested in Judaism. Hoffberger left Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and joined the Conservative Chizuk Amuno Congregation. As he became more religiously observant, Hoffberger became more concerned by statistics that showed increasing levels of intermarriage and assimilation among American Jews. He discovered the work of Rabbi David Fohrman and raised money to launch the Hoffberger Foundation for Torah Studies so that more peopl could benefit from Fohrman’s lectures.
Perhaps Hoffberger’s way of life is best described by the handwritten message printed on the jacket of his memoir. In contrast to the words of authors such as C.S. Lewis, who wrote: “There are far better things ahead than any we leave behind,” Hoffberger wrote: “What we leave behind is far more important than how far we get ahead.”