Richard Pratt - philanthropist, leader and 'true mensch'

Australian businessman, media owner and founder of the Pratt Foundation succumbs to cancer at 74.

April 29, 2009 21:39
Richard Pratt - philanthropist, leader and 'true mensch'

richard pratt 248 88 ap. (photo credit: AP [file])

Philanthropist Richard Pratt, who gave tens of millions of dollars through the Pratt Foundation to cultural, educational, social welfare, sports and environmental projects in Australia and Israel, has succumbed to cancer at age 74. Pratt was the fourth-richest individual in Australia, but never allowed his wealth to separate him from the ordinary man in the street. Born in Gdansk, Poland, he and his parents arrived in Australia as refugees in 1938, and initially lived in the Victorian country town of Shepparton. Their original name was Przecicki, which the Aussies found impossible to pronounce, so it was changed to Pratt. The young Richard - or Dick, as he was often called by his friends - demonstrated talents for both sports and the stage. In his youth, he played football for the Carlton Football Club, of which he became a patron and president in later years. He also spent a couple of years as an actor, touring London and New York before taking over the Visy cardboard box company founded by his father. Even as a businessman, he was always ready to perform at the drop of a hat, and many Israelis who visited his home in Melbourne can remember him singing during dinner or immediately afterwards. Pratt developed his company into a global enterprise and expanded its operations to include waste management. He also invested in several other enterprises, including media. He was one of the founders of The Jerusalem Report, had expressed interest in buying The Jerusalem Post and at one stage was the owner of The Australian Jewish News. His wife Jeanne and her sister Rosalyn Glickfield are both former journalists. Last year, Pratt had close to 6,000 people on his payroll. Pratt and his wife began visiting Israel regularly in 1970, and as a couple - and later through the Pratt Foundation - supported more than 300 projects in Israel. Among these was the Peres Peace Center, which benefitted substantially from their generosity. The foundation also contributed some $4 million a year to the United Israel Appeal. The Pratt Foundation has been particularly active in Beersheba. Just over a year ago, Pratt and his wife were in the city with Australian Governor-General Michael Jeffery for the inauguration of a park commemorating the Australian Light Horse Brigade, which played a significant role in the British defeat of the Turks during World War I. Pratt was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2005, but betrayed no signs of being ill when he was in Israel last year. Less than a month ago, he learned that the cancer had spread all over his body. Scores of dignitaries, including Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, paid tribute to him, lauding what he had done for Australia in many fields. President Shimon Peres called Pratt from Israel as soon as he learned the gravity of his illness. Following the announcement of his death on Tuesday, which was exactly one year to the minute after the dedication of the Park of the Australian Soldier, Peres said, "Richard Pratt was known for his exceptional energy, his mature wisdom, his kind heart and his outstanding contribution to the State of Israel." Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu expressed similar statements, saying, "Richard Pratt's devotion to Israeli and Jewish causes was renowned. Whether it was by generously supporting higher education, investing in integrating new immigrants into society or helping care for the country's disadvantaged, Richard Pratt left his mark on countless Israeli lives. Israel and the Jewish people have lost a great friend and supporter." Defense Minister Ehud Barak, in expressing his condolences to the Pratt family, said, "My friend Richard Pratt was a great man - a great Jewish leader and a great supporter and fighter for the cause of Israel. Richard cared passionately about contributing to a better world, and he was a true mensch. His passing is a great loss for the State of Israel." Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog, whose late father, former president Chaim Herzog, had introduced him to Pratt and who was a guest at the Pratt home in Melbourne last year, described the philanthropist as "a great Jewish leader" who was passionately devoted to the State of Israel. Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman, who had also been a guest at the Pratt home and first crossed paths with Pratt as president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said, " Richard Pratt was an outstanding business leader in his imagination, creativity and inspiration, but beyond all, a great human being and a great Jew. His commitment to his country and to the Jewish people in Israel has been exemplary." Beersheba Mayor Rubic Danilovich declared, "It is difficult to think of a personality who in recent years has made a bigger impact or more generous contribution to our city than Richard Pratt... He will be greatly missed by the people of Beersheba, but his legacy will be everlasting, and we will be forever grateful for all he has done for our city and the citizens of the Negev." Prof. Menachem Magidor, president of the Hebrew University, which had awarded Pratt an honorary PhD, referred to Pratt's concern for education, scientific research and the fostering of Yiddish culture. Fellow philanthropist Charles Bronfman lauded Pratt as a great leader, both in Australia and Israel. "I well recall his founding of The Jerusalem Report, in which I had the privilege of working with him. World Jewry and I, personally, have lost a true patriot and friend," he said. Keren Hayesod World Chairman Avi Pazner had a special affinity with Pratt. "Richard and I were both born in the same hospital in Danzig, at that time a Free State situated between Germany and Poland. There are few Jews from our generation who were born in Danzig in those years who were able to survive the Holocaust, as our town was the very first target of the invading Nazi armies, and therefore only few survivors remained there - and least of all, children," Pazner recalled. "This historical fact created between us a strong bond and great affection, and to which I must add my admiration for the man of action, the businessman, the philanthropist, the man with an immense heart - that was Richard Pratt," he said. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat spoke of Pratt's impact on the capital. "He was a true stakeholder of the city of Jerusalem, investing his time and resources in rebuilding and strengthening our holy city. I regret that I never had the chance to host Richard here in City Hall, but I know his impact on this city will survive him for generations to come." Some of the organizations and institutions supported by Pratt in Australia opened special Web sites for tributes during his final days and for condolence messages after his death. All of the sites were literally flooded. "From the reaction, you would have thought that he was a king and not some poor Jewish refugee from Poland who made good," said an Australian associate living in Israel. Pratt is survived by his wife and their three children - Anthony, Heloise and Fiona - and their children, as well as by Paula, a child he fathered through an extramarital relationship but who has been accepted by all members of the Pratt family and has visited frequently. The three adult Pratt children have been running different branches of their father's business, and each has inherited the branch that he or she ran.

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