Noted alumnus Harold Ronson leaves his mark at the university through his philanthropic contributions, including a brand new state-of-the-art science facility.
Harold Ronson ’51 wanted to enlist in the Armed Services during World War II. His two older brothers and brother-in-law already were overseas. One problem: He was only 17, and the mandatory age to enlist was 18. However, at the time, recruits could enlist at as young as 16 with their parents’ consent.
Brash and confident, he hatched a plan to lie about his age and join the Navy. Sneaking into a nearby bathroom, he forged a permission letter from his father, which gained him passage into military service.
This is one of the many stories of a remarkable man who used hard work, talent and grit, infused with a bit of humor, to overcome any circumstances and achieve extraordinary success.
GROWING UP IN THE CITY
For Ronson, growing up in Brooklyn was a special time when the playing fields were the streets and concrete courtyards and his daily activities consisted of doing jigsaw puzzles, painting, collecting stamps, frequenting local museums and following the New York sports teams. He enjoyed hanging out with the “gang,” finding new and inventive ways to entertain themselves using their imaginations and limited resources.
“We didn’t have much, but we didn’t know it.”
— Harold Ronson, Class of 1951
“We didn’t have much, but we didn’t know it,” Ronson fondly reminisces. Other childhood recollections center around his family, especially his parents. His father was a “funny guy who never took anything seriously,” and his mother was hardworking, religious and loving. And the things he learned through their influence—humor and giving back—have followed him throughout this life.
His recollections of his service are filled with memories of landing troops, firing smoke mortars from this flat-bottomed vessel designed to support amphibious missions, and feeding a machine gun alongside a gunner whose face was struck by Japanese mortar. Iwo Jima was the worst of his experiences, filled with violence, killing and chaos. In Okinawa, he witnessed kamikaze raids in which his group created a smoke barricade in the harbor during the evening, so the suicide planes couldn’t spot the Allied forces’ ships.
His most life-threatening experience occurred at Okinawa on his birthday, when a torpedo shot under his landing craft. “Two more feet and it would have blown us into a million pieces,” Ronson recounts.
A LIFE-ALTERING EXPERIENCE
Ronson served in the amphibious forces at Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the Philippines from 1944 to 1946. Enamored with the thoughts of adventure and heroism, his expectations didn’t mirror reality. When he arrived in California to board the vessel he would call home for the next few years, he did a double take. Expecting something large and ocean-bound, he transitioned to a “rusty, little landing craft, whose floatation abilities were in serious question,” Ronson laughs. “It was so small it didn’t even have a name.”
Intertwined with combat recollections are stories of occasionally lighthearted moments and inadvertent humor. On Cebu, a province of the Philippines, Ronson manned a submachine gun and ascended the island with his crew mates. Combing the island through a torrential downpour, they cautiously canvassed the area for enemy troops. Suddenly, the banana grass rustled near them and a man emerged waving swords and pistols. Mistaking him for the enemy, the soldiers aimed their guns directly at the man, who was actually hawking Japanese souvenirs. Ronson laughs when he remembers the expression on the man’s face and his sigh of relief at the scenario.
On another occasion, Ronson describes his days as the ship’s cook. He admittedly took the job when the regular cook fell ill, viewing it as an opportunity to beat the tedium of day-to-day ship chores. Affectionately dubbed “Cookie,” he recalls starting a fire on his first day as head cook, when he mistakenly used mincemeat to make hamburgers. Placing them on the stovetop and firing up the grill, they eventually exploded. As he later discovered, mincemeat is flammable. Thereafter, his crew mates dubbed him a religious cook since “everything I made was a burnt offering.”
After finishing his service, Ronson floundered doing odd jobs, such as loading supplies for a local business and working in a bakery. An uncle advised him to attend then Philadelphia Textiles Institute (PTI) and learn the textile trade.
“A college degree gave me a license to run in life’s race.”
A grateful nation made it possible for him to go to college through the GI Bill. Enrolling at PTI, Ronson’s college days were fun and fulfilling. He did well in his studies and graduated in 1951 with a degree in chemistry and dyeing.
“A college degree gave me a license to run in life’s race,” Ronson says.
And run he did. Upon graduating, he worked at W. Lowenthal as a plant chemist and rose through the ranks to become vice president. He married Kay Lindeman in 1955, and they eventually had two daughters, Norma Jean and Joanne. In 1962, he and a group of stockholders bought W. Lowenthal, and he was appointed president until the 1970s, when he became sole owner. In December 1986, he sold the company to Hanes and retired after 35-plus years.
A return trip to Iwo Jima in March 2018, 73 years after the island invasion, evoked memories of duty, courage, service and love of country. He wanted to honor his fellow World War II vets, a brotherhood that combat forges, and help preserve the memories of his comrades who fought gallantly to defend their country.
Ronson attended the annual Reunion of Honor, a ceremony held around the anniversary of the truce on the island and jointly sponsored by Japan and the United States. He was one of only a dozen returning WWII veterans, four of whom had fought there. Mixed emotions of sadness and pride filled the visit. In the ceremony, Ronson placed a wreath at the war memorial on the former battlefield. He also ascended Mount Suribachi, site of the famous flag-raising photograph that became a defining image of the war.
I’m proud to have been part of the force in 1945 and thrilled by the strength and kindness of the men and women of the United States Marine Corps at the Reunion of Honor. I always carry the war with me.”
“Everyone treated us like rock stars,” he says. “It’s the only time in my life I was ever asked for an autograph. The very air there is enriched by the courage, spirit and patriotism of those who served on both sides. I’m proud to have been part of the force in 1945 and thrilled by the strength and kindness of the men and women of the United States Marine Corps at the Reunion of Honor. I always carry the war with me.”
Throughout his many life experiences, Ronson learned from those closest to him. One thing he never forgot is a lesson taught by his mother. While his family financially struggled to make ends meet, his mother religiously gave 25 cents every week to support a Jewish women’s organization. While a minimal amount, it symbolized a huge gesture to Ronson.
“My mother taught me the true meaning of philanthropy,” he says. “I believe in giving away all my money while I’m alive,” then jokingly adds, “so that the last check I write to the undertaker bounces.”
He continues to remain a contributor to his alma mater and has served in myriad leadership positions at Jefferson, including two separate terms as a trustee. Ronson was named Trustee Emeritus in 2008.
His fundraising efforts facilitated the building of the Paul J. Gutman Library, the University’s award-winning library. His foresight and generosity led to the construction of Ronson Hall, a cornerstone of the student residential experience. He also established the Kay and Harold R. ‘51 Ronson Scholarship Fund.
His most recent contributions include a $2 million donation to the construction of the Kay and Harold Ronson Health and Applied Science Center, as well as the Ronson Simulation Lab. He also has supported the Kanbar Student Center, Tuttleman Center, Billy Harris Scholarship, Gallagher Scholarship, School of Design and Engineering, and the PhilaU Fund.
True to his nature, Harold enjoys finishing his narrative with humor. One day while visiting campus, he ventured into his eponymous building, Ronson Hall, to use the bathroom. Not knowing who he was, a student monitoring the front door told him the building wasn’t a public facility, so he couldn’t enter.
Bemused yet unshaken, he replied, “What’s the name on this building?” to which the student said, “Ronson Hall.”
“Well, I’m Ronson,” he said. The perplexed student responded, “Oh, you’re Mr. Ronson. I thought he was dead.”
“I like to be somebody, I like people to know me and I like to leave a mark.”
In his golden years, Ronson continues to remain involved, enthusiastic and giving. He still regularly plays tennis, travels between New York and Florida, enjoys the opera and cultural events, and supports numerous charitable and educational organizations.
As Ronson sees it, “I like to be somebody, I like people to know me and I like to leave a mark.”
Full Steam Ahead on the Kay and Harold Ronson Health and Applied Science Center
On Oct. 5, 2018, Jefferson leadership broke ground on the state-of-the-art Kay and Harold Ronson Health and Applied Science Center. This event marked the official start to a construction project that began this past summer and a facilities plan five years in the making.
Thanks to generous donor support, particularly that of its namesake, Harold Ronson, it will open for full operation in fall 2019. The building will promote collaborative learning where students from different backgrounds and educational disciplines can learn and work together with expert faculty to innovate and solve problems.
Designed to run parallel with and overlook Henry Avenue, this building will transform the “face” of East Falls Campus, becoming its first-noticed and most prominent feature. “When people drive by this campus and look at the Kay and Harold Ronson Health and Applied Science Center, they are going to know that this is a place where innovation happens,” said Stephen K. Klasko, MD, MBA, president of Thomas Jefferson University, during the groundbreaking ceremony.
Key features of the 60,000-square-foot building include a gross anatomy lab; six breakout rooms for team learning; enlarged medical simulation lab; enlarged physical diagnosis lab; athletic training diagnostics lab; labs for use by nutrition, respiratory therapy, occupational therapy and trauma counseling; enhanced textile materials lab; shelled space intended for health innovation maker space; and six Nexus Learning Hubs to promote collaborative teaching and learning.