A Portrait of Gene Epstein, a lifetime giver and legendary car dealer
This story earned a 2022 first-place Pennsylvania Keystone Media Award for profile writing.
Bucks County Courier Times / USA Today Network, Pa. / Published April 15, 2021
By Marion Callahan
How do you walk by someone in need when you have the ability to help?
It’s a question that keeps Bucks County philanthropist Gene Epstein up at night, and it’s one that motivated him to show up at Bucks County Community College in December and hand out envelopes of cash to people struggling to put food on the table.
Epstein gathered enough money to fill envelopes with the $100 bills — about $40,000 altogether. The $100 gift triggered emotions that day that were beyond what he expected.
“I found people pulling their cars over and crying,” said Epstein, recalling a great grandmother who told him she didn’t mind being hungry, if it meant she could buy a toy for her grandson. “It really got to me, and it still does today. We have so many people who are in need through no fault of their own. It’s on my mind all the time.”
While the tears and gratitude that flowed that day came from a place of joy, Epstein said he was the one who gained the most from giving.
“I feel selfish really; If I can change someone’s life for an hour, day or week or permanently, what greater charge can anyone get? I feel I get more pleasure out of giving than the recipient.”
Epstein may have made his living as a car dealer and real-estate investor, but now he lives to make his mark, powered by an insatiable desire to find enterprising ways to give. At 82, he has no plans to slow down.
One recent day from his Newtown-area estate, while sitting beside his black Moyen poodle Augie, he got three calls, including one from a local woman who after losing her job a year
ago is finally getting unemployment. Epstein cut through the red tape to help her.
“It was a minor act on my part, but this was major for her,” said Epstein, who doesn’t mind being in the limelight if there is a chance someone will follow his lead.
Epstein doesn’t shield himself from society’s sometimes overwhelming challenges, including a global pandemic, the struggle to address entrenched racial inequities, and bitterly divisive politics. He confronts them and does his part to fix them.
During the height of the pandemic, when COVID-19 cases were soaring and St. Mary Medical Center in Middletown was short on N95 masks, Epstein picked up the phone, called the CEO of Home Depot, and secured 450 masks, along with protective suits and other gear.
To address rising unemployment, he’s now working on a federal incentive program to get people back to work, while rewarding businesses that hire them. His no-nonsense temperament and frankness still serve him well.
Even at 82, he walks at a faster pace than most. He picked up some speed as he headed inside his garage that houses his 1957 Thunderbird convertible. Adorned with gas station and car paraphernalia from the 1930s, he said the car keeps him young and keep him close to his roots.
In a raspy voice, Epstein, dressed in a black button-down, khakis and sneakers, said he’s as tough in his negotiations as he was when he was hustling to sell cars on the dealership lots.
“I’m a ballbuster…but you see I’m working to get the best deal I can get so I can give to the people who need it the most.”
Valuing education, self-sufficiency
Epstein channels much of his energy seeking out ways to help others climb out of poverty by backing education and self-sufficiency initiatives.
The Bucks County Opportunity Council is a charity that is dear to his heart as the program pulls people out of poverty by helping them build the job and life skills they need to achieve self-sufficiency.
Erin Lukoss, director the council, recalls the December day Epstein told her he wanted to hand out cash.
“I couldn’t sleep that night; I was so worried. … He came with a stack of envelopes filled with $100 bills, a Santa, and a sign telling people to say hi to Santa,” she said.
“Gene talked to people in their cars. He listened to their hardships, and shed some tears listening to their challenges.”
For the Bucks County Opportunity Council, he offered a $10,000 challenge grant at the start of the pandemic last year. That challenge brought in over $75,000 in donations. Then at Christmas, he offered a $50,000 challenge to Give A Christmas donors of The Intelligencer and the Bucks County Courier Times. When the campaigns together exceeded $50,000, he donated $100,000 split equally between the two, she said.
“Gene is quite a character, and I mean that in the most complimentary of ways,” said Shane Fitzgerald, the executive editor of both papers and Epstein’s friend. “He has a gigantic heart and genuinely cares about giving back to his community. I’ll get email from him at 3 in the morning as he comes up with another idea to share. He’s a remarkable man and we’re very fortunate to have him in our community.”
More: Epsteins extend Give A Christmas challenge, increase match to $100,000 Epstein considers the Wheelz2Work program among his proudest endeavors.
The program, which started years ago at Bucks County Community College, accepts donated cars from community members and then gifts them to people working toward self sufficiency. Lukoss said that the initiative, now run by the Opportunity Council, has provided more than 500 households with a vehicle.
“That is the kind of out-of-the-box thinking Gene does,” she said. “Sometimes he calls me and says, ‘Erin I have a crazy idea,’ and now I know just to listen and talk through those ideas. Usually, they aren’t crazy at all, and end up helping many people in Bucks County.”
Education is also big priority for his family. At Bucks County Community College, his gifts through the Gene and Marlene Epstein Humanitarian Fund helped more than 100 students pay for their education. The Lower Bucks campus in Bristol Township is now named after them.
“The Epsteins want to see their fellow residents reach financial stability and self-sufficiency through an education at Bucks,” said Christina McGinley, executive director of foundation and alumni relations for Bucks County Community College. “The ripple effects of the
Epsteins’ philanthropy emanate throughout the county. Oftentimes, their gifts inspire others to give and collectively support students on their path to success.” More: Philanthropist issues challenges to support car donation program
As a contributor to at least 11 local charities, giving is not the challenge.
“The difficult part is to discern who needs what the most,” said Epstein, who vets organizations, investigating their efficiency. “That is not an easy thing to do.” Epstein isn’t looking to simply write a check. He likes to get involved. Sometimes, he’d rather “do” than give.
“Sometimes, I see pathways to solve problems that many people can’t figure out.”
Take his “Hire Just One” initiative.
It was during the last recession in 2009. He took out a full-page ad in the Bucks County Courier Times, pledging to donate $1,000 to charity for the first 250 small businesses that agreed to hire just one employee. He drew the attention of the Huffington Post and Katie Couric, who spotlighted his novel but simple efforts to get more than 200 businesses on board. CBS named him a “person of the week.”
“Within four to six weeks, 100,000 people were employed,” said Epstein. It was his enterprising ways that launched his success in the automobile industry and set the stage for his philanthropic endeavors. Before he was 20, he and his cousin teamed up to rent a car lot for $150 a month. Though it was “a deal,” the last four owners went broke trying to run it.
“That first year, we each made $45,000 — 10 times what the average working man was earning,” said Epstein, who worked day and night. “If a person came to buy a car, we didn’t want them to leave without buying one.”
He then opened the first used car dealership on Roosevelt Boulevard, and several years later, became the first Mazda dealer in the northeastern United States.
At 46, he retired, selling his last automobile business.
“I could then focus all my energy on nonprofit and charitable work,” Epstein said.
He’s grateful that his wife supported his ambitious plans to help others. “Anytime I came up with something, she was unequivocally, 100 percent behind what I wanted to do for other people.”
Epstein was born in 1939. He transcended his humble origins, growing up in the Logan section of Philadelphia as the youngest of three children. Fixated on cars at a young age, he used to peer out the window of his home, trying to identify every automobile that passed by, including its year, make and model.
“Automobiles are in my blood,” he said.
His father, Sam Epstein, ran a successful tire business, buying tires and exporting them overseas. Yet, when civil war broke out in China, his business lost $100,000 and he was broke. Soon after, at 47, he suffered multiple strokes that left him half paralyzed, facing medical bills that his family could not afford to pay.
One night, his father took his older brother’s Army-issued gun and took his life.
Gene Epstein was 11.
His family then had to rent out their home because they couldn’t afford the mortgage.
At 15, he went to work with his mom, who opened a candy store, Tabor Sweetshop. In less than two years, they made enough money to catch up with the mortgage of their first home and move back in.
His mother always supported his ambitions, even when he was 16 and asked to borrow $50 to buy a 1951 Studebaker sedan. He flipped it, selling it for three times that amount the next day.
“She only had $85 to her name … she was always there, telling me to keep doing what you feel is right.’ No matter what I did, I was always her angel,” said Epstein, who remembered the risk his mother took facing a $77.76 mortgage payment. “Instead of paying the mortgage, she turned around and loaned me the money.”
Her move to encourage Gene paid off.
“I gave her the $50 I owned her, and then we split the profits.”
He used the remaining $50 to buy another automobile, a 1950 Nash Sedan. He sold that one for too, making a $75 profit.
From then on, he said, “I was in business.”
That was about the same time he started dating Marlene, his high school sweetheart who became his wife. She formed special relationship and loving bond with his mother. “My mother would introduce Marlene to friends, ‘She’s my daughter that I never had to give birth
“I’m as madly in love with her today as I was when I was a kid,” he said.
Back then, they lived three blocks from each other.
“Before school in the morning, we use to go by the car lots to see what cars I could make deals on, and I’d go back at night; sometimes I’d negotiate to buy a car, pay for it and then head to school with Marlene,” said Epstein, who remembers their trips to Ogontz Ford on North Broad Street.
To celebrate a sale, they’d head to The Hot Shot diner for soup and sandwiches.
He fondly remembers their engagement near a miniature golf place on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. It was prompted by an introduction his brother made to a friend, referring to Marlene his “fiancé.”
“I looked at Marlene, and said, ‘I guess we just got engaged,’” he said.
They married in 1960, raising two children, Ellen and Robert, and guiding them on the same giving path, taking them periodically to homeless encampments in Philadelphia to show them the complex nature of poverty. On one trip, they bought 75 high-quality raincoats, gloves and socks, and together they handed them out to people living out of 4 by 4 cardboard boxes. They witnessed the mental health struggles of the homeless, as many refused their gifts.
“This made a lifelong impression on my children,” he said.
Family, he knows, plays a big role in how people see the world, and their part in it. His family’s ways left a deep impression on him.
Charity is in his genes
The root of his charity stems from a family pattern of giving that he witnessed as a young child.
He remembers how his Jewish grandparents, who also operated a candy store, did business in a neighborhood known for anti-Semitism. They donated what they could to the neighboring Catholic Church “even after vandals smashed their window in.” He recalls asking them why.
“They said, ‘As long as we have enough food to put on the table and pay bills, how can we not help someone?’ That made one hell of an impression on me.”
At his father’s funeral, his mother saw unfamiliar people at the cemetery paying their respects. She later learned his father had been helping them through “troubled times.”
“He did this for years, and my mother didn’t even know,” Epstein said.
At 13, he watched as his mother’s cousin pulled out a list of names of people who needed help on a continual basis. “He sent checks to them so they could get by in life,” he said. “That was in the back of my mind all of these years.”
Reflecting on his family’s pattern of giving, he said: “You see, giving is in my genes. It’s part of my DNA.”
Today, he’s still working to change the world and people’s lives for the better. “I’m obsessed with it,” Epstein said.
His days of spending money on cars are in the past. He now uses that passion to help, too.
Just recently, Epstein, a collector of antique cars, parted with one of his most prized vehicles, a 1969 Mercedes Benz that once belonged to Elvis Presley. All the money he made from the sale – $288,000 – went to regional food banks and other charities he supports.
“As much as I love rare cars, I’m now able to take those cars and use them to change people’s lives. That is why I parted with the ones that were most valuable – to help the most amount of people possible.”