By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Mar 19, 2010 at 1:01 PM
Local philanthropist Joseph Zilber died Friday morning at the age of 92.

Zilber was responsible for a significant amount of charitable giving in Milwaukee.

After plans to build a nightlife and entertainment complex at the site of the former Pabst Brewery failed in 2006, Zilber stepped up and worked out a deal with the city to develop the area into residential and office space.

Zilber called that project -- known as 'The Brewery" -- his "legacy to the city that has given me so much."

A year later, he donated $30 million to Marquette University for law school scholarships and another $10 million to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in order to create a school of public health.

His largest gift came in 2008, when he founded the Zilber Neighborhood Initiative; a $50 million investment to improve 10 low-income Milwaukee neighborhoods.

The money is being used to improve the quality of life, pay salaries and operating expenses for community organizations and finance what neighborhood residents consider to be early action projects.

Zilber made the donation to help his hometown reach what he called its "new potential." The first two neighborhoods to receive financial support are Clarke Square and Lindsay Heights -- where Zilber grew up, above his family's grocery store at North 10th Street and West Meinecke Avenue.

He worked at the store while attending Washington High School and later graduated from Marquette with a degree in Business Administration. He went on to Marquette Law School and graduated at the top of his class.

In 1941, after obtaining a real estate license and serving a two-year stint in the U.S. Army, Zilber began building houses during the postwar boom. He would later found Towne Realty, which owns and operates many Downtown buildings, and later became a part of Zilber, Ltd.

In a statement released Friday, Mayor Tom Barrett called Zilber, "a philanthropic giant who worked tirelessly to improve (the) community.

"Milwaukeeans of all ages have been and will continue to be beneficiaries of his spirited generosity, his hopeful vision and his strength and will to make life better for so many," Barrett said.

Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, who is running against Barrett in the race for governor, also issued a statement.

"Joseph Zilber's accomplishments show what an incredible difference one person can make," Walker said. "He focused his philanthropy on helping our community, from improving the poorest neighborhoods to providing scholarships for Marquette University Law School students. He gave so much and was personally invested in Milwaukee's future. His selfless generosity has benefited us all and I am grateful to have known him. I extend my deepest sympathies to his family."

Common Council President Willie Hines released a statement as well.

"As a city, we express our heartfelt condolences to his friends and family members and we grieve with them, knowing we, too, have lost a man who made us his priority. Joseph Zilber's unending faith in the City of Milwaukee, its promise and its prospects, stands as example to us as we work to carry out his legacy," Hines said.

"Mr. Zilber's dedication to his birthplace and his uncompromising belief that this city is rich with talent, diversity and hope sets the example for each of us to continue to grow and develop this place we call home.

"I, and I hope that each of you, will honor this visionary who gave so much to our city by continuing to embrace the commitment he had for Milwaukee and ensure that we reach and surpass the bar he set for us. The greatest way to honor Joseph Zilber is to make Milwaukee the city he knew it could be."

In recent years, Zilber spent a majority of his time in Hawaii but made frequent trips back to the city. He passed away at the Aurora VNA Zilber Family Hospice in Wauwatosa, a facility he funded and built in 2004.