Local Obituaries

How a benefactor donated millions to diabetes research and became Barry Gibb’s buddy

Leon Simkins (left) dances with his daughter, Michelle Simkins Rubell. Supporting charities became a family affair.
Leon Simkins (left) dances with his daughter, Michelle Simkins Rubell. Supporting charities became a family affair. Courtesy Michelle Simkins Rubell

A name fit for a monument: the Leon J. Simkins Research Tower at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

The honor reflects Simkins’ contributions over the years to support the Diabetes Research Institute. In 1999, he donated $5 million.

“The generous support from and involvement of Leon Simkins and the entire Simkins family dates back to the very beginning of the Diabetes Research Institute Foundation,” said Joshua Rednik, president and chief executive officer of the Diabetes Research Institute Foundation.

More: Read an obituary on Barbara Gibb, honorary chair of Love and Hope Ball

The Philadelphia-born Simkins, who died Aug. 2 at 89, gave of his time, too, and encouraged his family to follow his philanthropic lead. He was on the board of governors of the Diabetes Research Institute, a DRI Distinguished Humanitarian and a chairman of its Love and Hope Ball.

“For more than 40 years Leon and other members of the Simkins family have played — and continue to play — an integral role in Love and Hope, helping to ensure the vitality and forward momentum of the cure-focused research at the Diabetes Research Institute,” Rednik said. “Over the same period, Leon made a series of transformative donations in the millions of dollars to further advance the DRI’s work. We are honored that the DRI’s research tower bears his name. And we will forever remain grateful for his unwavering dedication to our cause: a cure for diabetes.”

Barry Gibb and his wife Linda and late mother Barbara have long supported the Love and Hope Ball. Over the years Gibb has served as the gala’s featured entertainer, solo and with his late brothers Robin and Maurice as the Bee Gees.

“Leon’s passing is an enormous loss. Our families have always been very close. His name will forever be synonymous with the DRI and Love and Hope. He will be greatly missed,” Gibb said.

Barry Gibb Love Hope 09(2)
Barry Gibb performed at the Love and Hope Ball at the Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood in 2009. Manny Hernandez Miami Herald File

Simkins, a Wharton School graduate, made his fortune through his family company, The Simkins Industries, which was founded in 1901 by his father, Samuel, as a manufacturer of recycled folding cartons and paperboard products. He also ran Westfield Financial, a Miami mortgage company.

Family, his daughter Michelle Simkins Rubell said, drove him. “He was just a respected, powerful guy who cared about his community and his family,” she said. “He adored his wife, Serena, and they have been married for 25 years and he shares 27 grandchildren with her. He grew his business to a major success. Considering what he achieved he was a humble, strong-willed guy that was driven — but for his family.”

Simkins Rubell continued: “He was committed to many causes like diabetes research — my mother’s brother died young.” Her mother, Simkins’ ex-wife Kathy Simkins, is a national chair with the Diabetes Research Institute. “He’s suffered from Alzheimer’s the last few years so his family is getting involved with that charity.”

More: Read an obituary on philanthropist Donald Jacobson

Simkins Rubell believes the inspiration came from the late Samuel Simkins. “His father was a very generous man. As a Jewish man he was compelled to support Jewish causes. That was very important to him and so, by example, he continued that legacy with his children,” she said.

Among Lee Simkins’ gifts: $515,000 to the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

Simkins “leaves a big legacy that we’d like to grow for him,” his daughter said.

We deeply mourn the loss of South Florida philanthropist, long-time supporter, and Platinum Seraphim, Leon Simkins.

Keith Tribble, president and CEO of Jackson Health Foundation

Simkins was also a member of the Jackson Memorial/UM Banyan Society for Project Newborn and the Jackson Memorial Foundation’s Golden Angel Society. In 2011, Simkins and his wife became the naming benefactors of The Leon and Serena Simkins Center for Thyroid & Neuroendocrine Tumors at Jackson North Medical Center, a comprehensive patient care facility, said Keith Tribble, president and CEO of Jackson Health Foundation.

For Dr. Camillo Ricordi, director of the Diabetes Research Institute, Simkins reputation led the former director of cellular transplantation at the University of Pittsburgh Transplantation Institute to UM in 1993.

Leon Simkin galas
Claudine Smurfit, Leon Simkins and Serena Borman Simkins at the Children’s Resource Fund at the Hotel Intercontinental in March 1997. CHRIS BERNACCHI Miami Herald File

“Leon and his family were instrumental in my decision to come to the Diabetes Research Institute at the University of Miami, which most people don’t know, and I feel his passing on a very personal level,” Ricordi said. “He wanted to make a difference, and thus generously supported our work at a critical point in our Institute’s history. Our research tower building bears his family name as a small token of recognition for making our work on the path to a cure possible. He believed passionately in our research efforts to cure type 1 diabetes.”

Simkins’ survivors include his wife Serena; his children Albert, Ron, David and Michael Simkins and Michelle Simkins Rubell; his wife’s six children and 27 shared grandchildren; his brother Morton Simkins and sister Vivian Lasko. Services were held. Donations in his memory can be made to the Diabetes Research Institute Foundation or to the University of Miami Alzheimer’s Research Unit.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen