Herman Silverman, 97, of Newtown, a former swimming pool company magnate who poured his business genius, generosity, and personal magnetism into numerous philanthropic ventures in central Bucks County including the James A. Michener Art Museum, died Wednesday, May 31, of heart disease at Pennswood Village.
Born to Sam and Elizabeth Silverman in the back of a police wagon on the way to the hospital in Camden, he grew up in West Philadelphia, Pottstown, and Strawberry Mansion. When his father died, Mr. Silverman, then 9, and his two brothers took care of their mother.
He graduated from Central High School in Philadelphia and went on to earn a degree in landscape design from the National Farm School in Doylestown, now Delaware Valley University.
In 1947, Mr. Silverman established the tiny Sylvan Landscaping Services. Three years later, he and his brother Ira launched Sylvan Pools and built the company into a national leader in pool design and construction before selling it in 1969. Later, Mr. Silverman liked to look out the windows of airplanes when flying low, and note the areas with his pools.
Yet as much as he loved the pool business, he liked real estate better. In 1980, he started the Silverman Family Partnerships, a property management company, and kept going sporadically to his office in Doylestown until several weeks ago.
Mr. Silverman was best known for his efforts to establish the Michener Art Museum in a former prison building in Doylestown. Michener, his close friend, fellow art lover, and a noted author, gave his name to the project. At the time of his death, Mr. Silverman held the title of museum founder and chairman emeritus.
"Even at 97, Herman was deeply engaged in the arts and the Michener," museum director Lisa Tremper Hanover wrote on the museum's website. "He was very proud of what the museum has become, and never missed an opportunity to converse with visitors or compliment the staff. We will all feel his absence acutely."
Mr. Silverman also helped Doylestown Hospital. In 1978, he wanted to raise funds for cardiac services there. Knowing patrons were unlikely to give larger sums, he came up with an idea for an annual luncheon club in which patrons donated $100. The campaign for what is now the Doylestown Hospital Heart Institute has since raised $2 million.
"Herman Silverman was engaging, perceptive, and motivated to excel and lead others to excellence," said Jim Brexler, president and CEO of Doylestown Health, a network of services that includes the hospital. "He grew up in challenging economic times, was a self-made man, and dedicated his life to improving the lives of others."
In 1994, Mr. Silverman embarked on a project to create the Free Clinic of Doylestown with hospital officials and his wife, Ann Arbeter, whom he married in 1942. When she died in 2007, the facility was renamed the Ann Silverman Community Health Clinic in her memory.
Mr. Silverman told his family that of all his volunteer endeavors, he was most proud of his 22-year association with the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency. He helped develop the small, state-affiliated organization into one of the country's leading providers of capital for affordable housing. Appointed in 1977 to a six-year term by Gov. Milton Shapp, Mr. Silverman was reappointed by the next three governors. During his tenure on the board, the agency raised millions of dollars through tax-free bonds for the program's efforts — multifamily rental housing, single-family home ownership, and foreclosure abatement.
Ann and Herman Silverman reared four daughters in Danboro. A year after his wife's death, he married Elizabeth Serkin, daughter of renowned pianist Rudolf Serkin and a clinical sociologist. A few months later, the couple moved to Pennswood Village in Newtown.
Mr. Silverman served on many boards including that of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. He launched the ArtMobile, a traveling gallery that educated Bucks County students in the fine arts; founded the Bucks County Poet Laureate program; and established the Silverman Gallery in Buckingham, which promotes artists working in the Bucks County Impressionist tradition.
He also held leadership roles with the Central Bucks Chamber of Commerce, Doylestown Historical Society, Bank of Old York Road, Bucks County Airport Authority, and Plumstead Township Sewer Authority. He was a Delaware Valley College trustee, and acting president from 1990 to 1991 during a time of transition at the school.
He received many accolades including a Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Delaware Valley University in 2015.
Mr. Silverman became an author when, after years of being asked, "What is James Michener really like?" he decided to write about their 50-year friendship. That way, he said, "I could tell them to read the book and save myself a lot of breath."
Michener and Me was published in 1999. Running Press printed 7,000 hardcover copies, and Mr. Silverman hit the road on a book-signing tour.
When he had an audience, Mr. Silverman never disappointed. "He greeted everyone with a smile that lit up the room and his dry delivery was peppered with laugh-out-loud tales and fascinating insights and jokes," his family said.
Besides his wife, Mr. Silverman is survived by daughters Jeffra Nandan, Leda Molly, Binny Silverman, and Jenny Silverman; seven grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; stepchildren Edmund Ludwig, Tobias Ludwig, Sarah Ludwig, and David Ludwig; and five stepgrandchildren. Two brothers died earlier.
Plans for two life celebrations are pending.