December 12, 2018

Giving as a fountain of youth

Al Azus has found his fountain of youth, and he’s not keeping it a secret. In fact, the 92-year-old philanthropist recently published a memoir whose title all but gives his formula away: “Live Longer by Giving.”

Azus has donated time, energy and millions of dollars from his successful envelope-printing company to Los Angeles social services agencies including Vista Del Mar, the Hollenbeck Youth Center and the Los Angeles Jewish Home. With Hedi Azus, his wife, he funded a children’s recovery room, family waiting room and pediatric assessment program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He has spent untold hours playing games and his clarinet with the children of Home-SAFE, a division of Vista Del Mar. To date, Home-SAFE’s Family Resource Center and Vista’s new school services building bear Al and Hedi’s names.

“I really believe I’m living a lot longer because I keep on giving,” Azus said at his home recently. “It’s my biggest pleasure in life. It makes me feel good.”

Azus penned his latest book with Loren Stephens, owner of Write Wisdom memoir publishing company. Stephens helped Azus write his first book, “Life Is a Game: Bet on Yourself,” in 2003 and in 2010 picked up his narrative again to tell the story of Azus’ altruistic spirit, forged during a life of hardship and tragedy.

“There are people with more money than Al has, but not nearly the heart that he has,” Stephens said. “This book is really a primer for people — it’s a sermon on how to be generous, how to live like Al has lived.”

Chapter 1 describes the origins of Azus’ philosophy: “Poverty can make you generous.”

Born in Chicago, the oldest of four children in a Sephardic Turkish family, Azus got his first job at age 8 and continued working throughout his school years. The Great Depression was under way, and his family was on welfare.

When Azus was 14, he went to work for Didech Brothers suit makers. One of his jobs was to deliver finished suits to customers, rain or shine. Before Yom Kippur one year, he had to deliver a suit to a good customer during a blizzard. Azus had no coat or boots and arrived at the client’s shoe store shivering and wet. The owner looked at the holes in Azus’ shoes and promptly handed him a new pair. “I always dreamed that someday I would find a way to give to children in the same way that so many generous people had given to me,” Azus writes.

At 21, Azus enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. When he returned unscathed from his four-year service, he knew he had to pay his good luck forward. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something. I’m on borrowed time,’ ” he recalled. After the war, the consumer industry was booming. Azus worked as a salesman, peddling refrigerators, dishwashers and vacuums door-to-door. Later he sold stationery, gambling on his natural gift for sales to build a livelihood on commission. It turned out to be a lucrative bet.

Clients would tell him they had trouble getting high-quality printed envelopes. He found a printing machine for sale for $750, took on a partner and founded Alna Envelope Co. in 1954. Slowly, doggedly, he grew his business into an industry giant.

And then, as the story goes, he decided to give back.

Children’s agencies have been Azus’ largest philanthropic cause. “Everyone is looking for love,” he said. “I find that with kids in need.”

Azus has funded programs at the Hollenbeck Youth Center for decades. Often, he would hire youths in need of income to work at Alna. Some still work at the company after 35 years. Not only did he help start careers, he also underwrote a multimedia program at the center to give kids trade training — so they could bet on themselves, as Azus had.

“Believe me, I receive a lot more than I give,” he said.

Last year, Al and Hedi Azus were honored at the ribbon cutting for Vista Del Mar’s new school services building. The couple donated $1.3 million for the project, just part of the $3 million they have given to the Cheviot Hills organization since the 1980s.

For Azus, the gift is personal.

Years before Alna, Azus’ first wife, Serene, died of tuberculosis. The Korean War was hurting his appliance store and he had just bought a house in Pacoima for his family that he could no longer afford. Azus was forced to seek help to care for his son and daughter, ages 3 and 2. He’d heard about Vista and asked if they could help his family. “They said, ‘We’ll help you — that’s what we do,’ ” he recalled. His children lived in foster care for two years, until he remarried and was able to make a home for them again. Azus never forgot the agency’s hospitality.

“Al is always one to say, ‘What can I do? What do you need?’ ” Vista Del Mar president and CEO Elias Lefferman said. “He cares genuinely. He says, ‘I’m here because kids need things.’ Acts of kindness and generosity by people like Al make all the difference.”

Azus doesn’t want the recognition, doesn’t care for plaques on the wall. “I have trouble being honored,” he said. “I hate to brag.”

His only concern, said Hedi Azus, is whether he’s doing enough. “The community needs so much, and Al wants to make sure he has enough money to cover it,” she said.

Yet Azus’ generosity doesn’t only benefit strangers. In “Live Longer by Giving,” he also writes of the importance of giving to family and employees. Before they were widespread, Azus started pension plans for his workers. He has helped them buy homes, care for their children and meet living expenses. In return, they have shown him professional and personal loyalty: In 1985, when Azus had quintuple bypass surgery, they all donated blood for his operation.

Family is especially meaningful to Azus. Serene was only 25 when she died, and he never got over her. His second wife, Harriet, died of cancer. His daughter, Rhonda, died several years ago after a lifelong struggle with mental illness. He talks about his remaining children and grandchildren with protective fondness. Of Hedi, to whom he has been married for 35 years, he writes, “With [her] by my side, everything is possible.”

Azus has given copies of his latest book to friends, family and employees, and distributed a limited run to colleagues at his favorite charities.

He still goes to his downtown office on Wednesdays. He reads his two books often and says he marvels over “what one person can do.”

“It’s amazing — starting out with no money at all and now giving away millions,” he said.

Even at 92, Azus said, giving is easy. Coming to terms with the challenges of age is the hard part. “Is living longer a curse or a blessing?” he wondered. “I can’t walk. I have health problems. I’ve lost so many loved ones. But it’s a blessing if you can do something for other people.”