More on Buffett: Dr. Ruth’s Gift That Keeps on Giving

As I reported last week, I missed being part of the Omaha crowd at this year’s Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. But there was a very important guest of honor in that crowd who was seated on the front row, a true role model who deserves our recognition. It was Dr. Ruth Gottesman, who recently donated $1 billion to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Dr. Ruth’s gift is likely the largest ever made to a medical school, according to Joseph Goldstein’s New York Times article of Feb. 26, 2024, “$1 Billion Donation Will Provide Free Tuition at a Bronx Medical School.”

The donor is the 93-year-old widow of Wall Street financier Sandy Gottesman, a close colleague of Warren Buffett who made an early investment in Berkshire Hathaway. According to Dr. Ruth, Sandy died in 2022 at age 96, leaving her a powerful opportunity. “He left me, unbeknownst to me, a whole portfolio of Berkshire Hathaway stock, she recalled. The instructions were simple: ‘Do whatever you think is right with it.’”

Dr. Ruth seized that opportunity to make a difference in the world, and by doing so created a meaningful family legacy. “She realized immediately what she wanted to do, she recalled. ‘I wanted to fund students at Einstein so they could receive free tuition,’ she said. There was enough money to do that in perpetuity.” Dr. Ruth, a former professor at Einstein, was director of psychoeducational services and is current chair of the Board of Trustees.

When Dr. Ruth approached the head of the medical college Dr. Philip Ozuah, she asked this provocative question: “If someone said, ‘I’ll give you a transformative gift for the medical school,’ what would you do?” He answered there were three things: “One, he began, you could have education be free—.” She stopped him there. “That’s what I want to do,” she said. He never mentioned the other ideas.”

In unsurprising humility, Dr. Ruth didn’t want any recognition or publicity. Dr. Ozuah convinced her otherwise, as attaching her name to the gift might inspire others. She relented, but on the condition that the Einstein College of Medicine not change its name. “The name, she noted, could not be beat. ‘We’ve got the gosh darn name – we’ve got Albert Einstein.’”

Einstein’s student body is about 60% women. The racial composition is diverse: about 29% Asian, 11% Hispanic, and 5% Black. When the students assembled for a recent mandatory meeting, they had no idea why. “The future doctors screamed, jumped out of their seats, and cried when Gottesman made her announcement,” per Ben Cohen and Karen Langley’s article, “The Friendship with Warren Buffett that Led to Her $1 Billion Donation” (Wall Street Journal, March 1, 2024).

The Gottesman family credits Buffett’s Berkshire success with enabling them to make charitable gifts “that have brought joy to the whole family.” Buffett deflects the praise: “I’ve never seen anybody behave better with a billion dollars…. She could change all these people’s lives by giving up something that wasn’t actually important to her and would be hugely important to thousands of people over time.”

One of the most fulfilling aspects of my career as an estate planning lawyer is to help clients achieve their philanthropic goals. It is richly rewarding to help families create charitable structures that provide a true “win-win,” blessing not only the recipient of the gifts, but also providing the donor family with meaningful benefits. Those who give discover the fulfillment that comes from giving to others. Moreover, as the family comes together to make philanthropic decisions, that process brings another “win,” generating powerful family glue to help bond heirs together.

The seeds for philanthropy can be planted into children at a young age. Dr. Ruth attests, raised by parents who set an example with not only gifts of money, but also good deeds. “Philanthropy was in Ruth’s blood…. One of the formative moments of Ruth’s life came when she was around 10 years old and her family took in another 10-year-old girl fleeing Nazi Germany during World War II. ‘She never said goodbye to her parents, and she didn’t know whether they would be alive after the war,’ Ruth Gottesman once said. ‘That began a process of seeing others and feeling their pain.’”

Dr. Ruth’s story certainly inspires me. I’m with Warren Buffett—look at all the good she’s doing that will continue forever. Few can give in the magnitude that Dr. Ruth did, but with whatever we have, we can make a difference in others’ lives. And the bonus is that by doing so, we set an example for the next generations to follow. The Blum Firm welcomes the opportunity to help you explore charitable structures that are right for your family.

Dr. Ruth Gottesman (pictured with husband Sandy) is a role model for philanthropy, using their Berkshire fortune to make a $1 billion gift to endow free tuition at Einstein Medical School, truly a gift that will keep on giving.