Morton L. Mandel

Morton L. Mandel, 91, holds up his diploma during the May 19, 2013, commencement ceremony at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Mandel earned a bachelor’s degree after first enrolling in college in 1939.

Mort Mandel learned early the difference that one person can make.

Despite financial troubles that forced her to sell clothes from a suitcase, his mother always found a way to make someone else’s life better.

The help might only be a bit of food or a few dollars, but it made a huge difference to the recipients.

It also offered a lasting lesson to her son and his siblings.

Many have referenced the spirit of generosity Rose Mandel instilled in her children, but as Mort explains in his book, her influence extended to their auto parts company as well.

“While most businesses focused heavily on the what and the how,” he wrote, “we put our emphasis on the who …”

By now the results of that approach are well known: purchased for $900 in 1940, the one-time auto repair shop evolved into a global enterprise that, when merged with a British firm 56 years later, made the brothers billionaires. The biggest benefit of that outcome, from the Mandel brothers’ perspective, was that they would have more time and money to devote to their philanthropy.

By then the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation had been in existence for more than four decades, itself focused largely on “who”-related subjects, among them leadership, nonprofit management, education, and Jewish education. While the emphasis on learning is clear in the latter two, it is just as prominent in the others: the foundation has established centers, institutes and schools in both this country and in Israel. It also has invested heavily higher education itself, supporting programs in places ranging from Brandeis University and Cuyahoga Community College to Cleveland State University and Tel Aviv University.

Case Western Reserve University has been fortunate to be among the universities to receive grants from the Mandel Foundation. In 1988, its leaders provided the naming gift for our social work school, and 25 years later funded its major renovation and endowed the school’s deanship. In between, they supported construction of what is now the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Community Studies Center and in 2015, invested in a conference center and wellness pathway in the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve and Cleveland Clinic.

Mort’s ties to our campus date back to 1939, when he won a scholarship to Adelbert College. But then launching the auto parts company interrupted his undergraduate studies and enlistment during World War II delayed a return still longer. The army had been so impressed with his exam scores that they sent him to two west coast universities, but he had never actually completed his degree.

The paradox was striking. Here was a man who had excelled in school. Along with his brothers, he had made learning possible for literally thousands of people. His efforts had won multiple honorary doctorates (including one from our university), and his 2012 book, ‘It’s All About Who,” was as much a course in leadership as a biography. Yet he didn’t have a college diploma?

We checked on the credits Mort had accumulated among all three institutions. He needed six credits, specifically capstone and its defense. The book met the first requirement. The question was, after all that he had accomplished, would Mort consider a meeting with faculty worth the trouble?

Many of you reading already know the answer: not only did he agree – he relished the conversation. And when Mort learned he had passed, he declined the offer of a private graduation presentation. At 93, he still wanted to be right there, in cap and gown, back in the “M” section of the processional.

The young people around Mort loved having him in line – and the feeling was mutual. He posed for one selfie after another, beaming every time. When I announced his presence as commencement began, Mort stood, arms wide and took a glorious bow. Later, when he received his diploma, the thousands of graduates and their families rose as one, bursting into spontaneous applause.

Mort wrote in his capstone that he believed strongly “in the ability of a single, extraordinary person to change the world.”

He did.

Rose would have been so proud.

Barbara R. Snyder is president of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

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