Zoo Miami’s Ron Magill reveals identity of long-anonymous donors of millions

The zoo’s Ron Magill tells the story of the Miami entrepreneur and his wife who gave millions over the years to improve animals’ lives. The only catch: No one was to know who they were.

08/14/2014 12:46 PM

08/16/2014 8:39 PM

Ron Magill, the goodwill ambassador and communications director of Zoo Miami, wrote this first-person article for the Miami Herald as a tribute to two longtime donors to the zoo.

The angel approached in the summer of 1993, after the storm. I had just finished giving a presentation to a Coral Gables civic group, talking about all the tremendous challenges the zoo was still facing after Hurricane Andrew’s devastation a year earlier. I showed images of the destruction and animals that had been displaced. I told some of the personal stories of dedicated staff members and volunteers committed to saving the zoo when many others thought it impossible.

After I finished, many individuals in the audience came up to thank me for speaking and offered support and encouragement. But one man stands out to this day. He was a slight gentleman who appeared to be in his late 60s or early 70s. Modestly dressed, in dated clothing; the stuff my father wore when I was a kid. He put an envelope into my hand. He said he was inspired and trusted me to use it in a way that would best help animals but demanded that his gift remain anonymous. I thought it would be rude to open the envelope in front of him, so I simply thanked him very much, promised he would remain anonymous, and continued to greet other guests.

It wasn’t until I got back to the zoo that I even remembered I had the envelope in my pocket. It contained a folded check. I expected maybe $25. When I opened it, I almost fell down. Ninety thousand dollars! My initial reaction was that there was no way this check could be valid, an assumption that still shames me. His appearance made me think that he had limited means.

The check was written in shaky handwriting. It looked like it had been written very slowly. Maybe this was an elderly gentleman who meant well but was a bit delusional regarding his financial capabilities? I prepared for an “insufficient funds” response from the bank — but the check went right through.

I wrote the gentleman a letter extending my profound gratitude for his overwhelming generosity. I found it difficult to put into words how moved I was on behalf of the entire zoo, just as I find it difficult to do so now. He wrote back on what was obviously an old, manual typewriter, on faded bond paper, saying he appreciated my letter and reminding me of his requested anonymity.

A little over a year went by, and I received another letter at the zoo, this one with my name underlined twice with red pen. I recognized the typing on that envelope from that same old manual typewriter. It was a $100,000 check this time, with a note of gratitude about keeping my promise about his anonymity. I was stunned. Still am.

Though I knew this person was extremely private, I had a deep desire to learn more about him. In my thank-you letter, I said that I would love the opportunity to sit down and talk about what was important to him so that I could be sure that his donations were being used in a way that would meet with his approval. To my surprise, he called me and invited me to his home.

I remember driving there expecting to see a large, expansive mansion behind a gated wall. I thought for sure he was a retired CEO or big entrepreneur, but when I researched his name, nothing came up.

When I arrived, I was stunned to see a very modest house that looked like it dated back to the 1950s, with a raggedy Nissan Sentra in the driveway. Our anonymous angel was sitting on his small front porch behind an old wrought-iron railing, in a vinyl chair that resembled the ones my parents used to bring to the beach. He slowly got up and shook my hand, and we walked into a time warp.

The house was immaculate, but it looked as if nothing inside had changed since the early 1960s. The furniture was old Victorian. Ornate ceramic lamps in the living room. Art deco with green and peach accent walls in the family and dining rooms. Though I was sure that the furniture had been there since the late ’50s or early ’60s, it was in great condition.

Once in the house, I was greeted by the gentleman’s wife, a slight woman with stunning blue eyes who welcomed me warmly. She had the charming hint of an Irish accent.

As I informed him of the zoo’s latest efforts, our small talk soon led to his telling me about himself. Born and raised in New York. Struggled to make ends meet with his mother and sister. His father was an abusive alcoholic who left the home early, forcing him to be the man of the house at a young age. Never really had a childhood, forced to work as a boy while juggling school.

One of his first jobs was delivering blocks of ice off the back of a carriage pulled by a draft horse over the cobblestone streets of the city in the 1930s. He used big pointed tongs to grab the large block of ice and then go up several flights of stairs (no elevators back then) to put it into an “ice box.” He would follow this routine day after day, and never complained because he was lucky to have the job and help his mother.

He did, however, feel terrible for the horses that pulled the carriages. He said the extreme heat in the summer and the bitter cold in the winter was sometimes too much for the animals. He got emotional recalling when one horse collapsed from exertion. That’s when he decided that he would be an advocate for animals.

I really wanted to know how he was able to be so generous to the zoo, but I didn’t want to be nosy. He mentioned that his specialty was tools, but didn’t go into detail.

Over time, I would visit the gentleman and his wife regularly, listening to countless stories of his growing up in New York and then moving down to Miami to open his own tool store. He took much pride in showing me how he typed all of his own catalogues and how he was able to follow through on his dream of opening a successful business. He was a workaholic and said he regretted not enjoying more things with his wife when he was younger because he was so committed to his business. He would shake his finger at me and say, “Don’t be like me! Enjoy travel and adventure while you’re young and still can!”

During one visit, he brought out a copy of a check he had received from Wometco. He smiled as he told me that it was the payout for stock he had bought years earlier on a tip from an old friend, Bob Weaver, the legendary weatherman from WTVJ-Channel 4. It was during a round of golf at the Biltmore that Mr. Weaver told the gentleman about this company he was working for (at the time, Wometco owned WTVJ) and felt that it would be wise to invest in it. Our angel invested $10,000 back then. The copy of the check he showed me was for nearly half a million dollars!

This was the first time he shared with me that it was the stock market that helped him help the animals. He recalled walking with his mother every month as a young boy to stand in line to pay the Con Edison electric bill. He realized early that people need utilities and said to himself that as soon as he had two nickels to rub together he would try to buy stock in utility companies. And so he did.

As the years went on, the gentleman and his wife became part of my family. Their wisdom and guidance were illuminating. I could not get over how simply they lived without any sign of extravagance. No computer, no cable or satellite television, not even a garbage disposal. They had one television, an old Zenith tube set with no remote. There were drawers in the garage filled with countless old screws, washers and what looked like broken parts from machines long gone. Still a saver, after all these years. Everything could be reused.

I never saw him or his wife buy anything luxurious in more than 20 years, but they did donate generously and anonymously on an annual basis. Over time, their donations had added up to nearly $800,000.

With each donation, I pleaded with the gentleman and his wife to allow me to recognize their generosity in some tangible way at the zoo. They both kept insisting that they wanted to remain anonymous and that the best way to recognize them would be to continue to work as hard as I could to help protect animals. I was finally able to persuade them to allow the zoo to name a shelter area in their honor as long as I promised not to release any other information about them. They were both emphatic about my not saying anything to the public until both had passed.

Their donations played key roles in the development of some of the most popular exhibits at what is now Zoo Miami. They were major contributors to the Wings of Asia aviary, and they provided the foundation money for the construction of the Giraffe Feeding Station. In addition, they have been the sole sponsors of the annual “Eco-Hero” program, in which a middle school student is rewarded for doing something outstanding for the environment by getting to go on a wildlife adventure to an amazing place in the world while the entire trip is made into a television documentary.

In 2007, with our angel well into his 90s, his health began to deteriorate. All his life, he had been a voracious reader, and now macular degeneration had taken away his eyesight, a tremendous blow. Hearing loss added to his frustration of not being able to do things for himself. Life became difficult. Thanks to the dedicated and loving care of his wife, he was able to remain home and at least be in familiar surroundings, but it soon became necessary to enlist the services of hospice care.

In the final weeks of his life, I visited every day. I would sit with his beloved wife at his bedside and, though we were there to comfort him, it was often he who would comfort us. He would constantly reassure us that there was no pain, that he was thankful for his life, and that he was ready to die. His only worry was his wife. The last thing he said to me was to please look out for her. I held his hand, along with his wife, as he took his last breath.

I had never watched anyone die before, and the feeling wasn’t like anything I had expected. Though it was certainly emotional, it was also one of the most peaceful and spiritual moments I had ever witnessed. It was at that point that I lost my fear of dying and hoped that when my time came, I would be as lucky.

Shortly after his passing, I received a call from the attorney of our angel’s estate. There were only two beneficiaries of his will. His beloved wife, to whom he left his house and a modest sum of money. And then: “I devise the rest and residue of my estate . . . unto Miami-Dade County Metrozoo” and “It is my wish and desire that said funds be used pursuant to the directions of Ron Magill.”

I was truly caught off guard by the thought that this very private man had trusted me to administer the bequest. It made more sense to me when remembering how frequently he told me he didn’t trust governments or boards to dole out money properly. He said that it wasn’t organizations that inspired him to give, but rather people within them. Weeks later, I found out that he had left the zoo more than $2.3 million.

I visited his widow daily after that to make sure she had everything she needed. We would talk about memories and about giving. I tried to get her to agree to name something major at the zoo after him, but she insisted that I maintain their anonymity until she passed because now, more than ever, she wanted to keep her privacy. Reluctantly, I agreed.

As the years went by, I would visit or call his widow at least once a week and listen to her wonderful stories. Childhood in Ireland. Coming to New York. Working as a waitress in Miami. She was one of eight children who grew up poor, but she said she was “rich” because she was healthy and never wanted for anything as everyone around her was in the same situation. She constantly reinforced in me how lucky I was to have a beautiful wife and two wonderful children. She would tell me to cherish every moment with them, as the time will go by much faster than I could ever imagine. She said she was glad that her beloved had passed first; she wouldn’t want him to go through this feeling without her.

She was still fiercely independent into her 90s. Drove. Ran errands. Cooked. Managed all her affairs with little assistance. Exercised each morning. Loved her tea and her newspaper. She was alone but not lonely. I gave her a satellite television subscription, and she became addicted to the 24-hour news programs. But early one morning in January, I received a call from her neighbor that the newspaper from the day before had not been picked up. I rushed over. She had fallen. Broken femur. Weeks of difficult rehab. And though we celebrated her release from the rehab facility, her treasured independence was gone. Her lust for life faded without the ability to drive or be free of a live-in nurse. Her heart started to fail, and she was tired.

After more and more complications, her personal physician, compassionate and understanding for so many years, suggested hospice care. For the entire time that I was privileged to know this woman, she asked me to promise her only one thing, and that was to never put her in a nursing home because she wished to die in the comfort and serenity of her own home. I promised her that I would do everything in my power to grant that wish.

For the following days, I kept a bedside vigil, along with her personal caregiver and hospice nurse. One evening, after days of little or no response, she opened her eyes widely as if she were looking at something and then spoke very clearly the names of her late husband and two of her late siblings. It was as if she was looking at them. It was a moment that sent chills up and down my spine. She then fell back asleep, never to wake again. Just like with her late husband, I held her hand as she took her last breath, and once again, it was a peaceful and serene transition befitting such a beautiful soul.

In the days following her passing, I took care of her estate. In handling her mail, I was amazed to see how many charities she supported. Now I realized why she had so many calendars, notepads, and return address stickers around the house — they were all thank-you gifts from those charities. And, like her husband, she insisted on remaining anonymous.

Also, like her husband, she left the overwhelming majority of her estate to the zoo. She earmarked that money for a special conservation fund that I am very proud to say bears my name. This fund is providing the foundation for an endowment at the Zoological Society of Florida that will fund conservation efforts around the world. I was overwhelmed by this incredibly thoughtful gift. Humble, compassionate, honest, thoughtful and altruistic, right until the end — and now beyond.

As for my promise to maintain their anonymity while they were alive — well, I kept that. But I think you should know their names now.

Thank you, Albert and Winifred Sami, for making the world a better place for animals and those who love them. You were amazing beyond description.

Construction of a new multimillion-dollar amphitheater is underway, serving as the hub for the zoo and the future venue for a variety of educational and cultural presentations.

It’s the Sami Family Amphitheater, in honor of two of the dearest and no longer anonymous friends the zoo has ever had.

Dan LeBatard contributed to this article.

Join the Discussion

Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service