Charles Schusterman: He Lived the American Dream

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(4 January 2001 – Tulsa, OK) Charles Schusterman—businessman, philanthropist and Jewish leader—died December 30, 2000, from acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). He was 65.

Mr. Schusterman was known primarily for his tremendous success in business and for the philanthropic activities of the family foundation he formed with his wife of 38 years, Lynn. His accomplishments are even more remarkable given the myriad of debilitating physical ailments from which he suffered as a result of his battle with CML (chronic myelogenous leukemia) during the last seventeen years of his life. First and foremost, however, he was committed to his family.

“Our family was the most important part of Charlie’s life,” Lynn Schusterman said. “He loved us very much and we adored him. One of the reasons he worked so hard on behalf of so many charitable causes was to teach us the importance of tikkun olam – a Hebrew phrase meaning to repair the world.  He pushed forward, encouraged the rest of us to push with him and made us promise that we would keep on pushing even after he died in an effort to ensure that our family would always strive to make the world a little bit better for our children, our grandchildren and the generations to follow.”

Mr. Schusterman was the son of immigrants. He attended the University of Oklahoma and graduated among the top 10 of his class, with a degree in Petroleum Engineering. After a stint in the United States Army, Mr. Schusterman returned to Tulsa and entered the oilfield salvage business.  In 1961, he switched to acquiring and operating marginal oil properties and, in 1971, founded Samson Resources, named for his father who had died when Charlie was only 19 years old.

In 1983, Mr. Schusterman was diagnosed with CML and, since there was no known cure, was told he had six months to live. Researching the subject in his own thorough way, Mr. Schusterman found Dr. Moshe Talpaz at M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston and entered an experimental protocol.  For the rest of his life, despite lung damage, peripheral neuropathy, and numerous other harsh side effects from the treatment for his leukemia, Charlie continued to manage the explosive growth of his company, now known as Samson Investment Company, and began to expand the number of charitable, philanthropic and educational activities sponsored by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

Melvin Dow, friend and extended family member, recently had occasion to introduce Mr. Schusterman at an event at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center and said that, “No introduction of Charlie Schusterman would be complete without a reference to his valiant and heroic fight against leukemia.  Winston Churchill, who was famous for many eloquent speeches, said that his best speech consisted of only six words: ‘Never give up.  Never.  Never.  Never.’  If ever there were a poster child for never giving up, that poster child would be Charlie Schusterman.”

Mr. Schusterman regularly spoke about the power of positive thinking, and actively sought to be a role model for others with fatal diseases and physical limitations. “Charlie was a special person,” said Don Newman, a longtime friend. “He was incredibly bright, wholly unassuming, open and direct, and extremely generous. He had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, a desire to teach and a love of life which characterized his tenacious fight against his illness. We will all miss him very much.”

Over the past 30 years, Mr. Schusterman built Samson into the second largest independent gas producing company headquartered in Oklahoma and one of the 20 largest independent oil and gas companies in the entire United States. Samson’s activities stretch from the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico through 23 states to the frozen tundra of Canada, and into Russia and Venezuela as well. Its business includes the production, development and exploration for oil and gas as well as the acquisition and operation of producing properties. Mr. Schusterman moved from being a co-CEO of Samson in September, 2000, to become its Chairman, and the company is now directed by his daughter, Stacy Schusterman, and her co-CEO, Jack Schanck.

Founded in 1987, the Schusterman Family Foundation has been recognized by experts in the field as a model charitable foundation and has received awards not only for its generosity but also for its innovative creativity. It supports programs that enhance and enrich Jewish life in the United States, Israel and the former Soviet Union. The Foundation also funds Oklahoma-based, non-sectarian charitable groups that focus on education, children and community service.

Included among the largest individual grants made to date by the Schusterman Family Foundation are:

  • $11.25 million to Synagogue Transformation and Renewal (STAR), a Chicago-based philanthropic partnership committed to enhancing synagogues and increasing their potential to connect and inspire Jews in North American Jewish communities;

  • $10 million to the University of Oklahoma to establish the Schusterman Center at the University of Oklahoma in Tulsa, expanding the OU presence and providing the cohesiveness, facilities and organizational identity to aid in future program development for the Tulsa campus;

  • $5 million to the World Union of Progressive Judaism to help complete Mercaz Shimshon (Samson Center), a new cultural center in Jerusalem named in honor of Mr. Schusterman’s father;

  • $1.5 million to the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE); an initiative designed to meet the challenge of providing excellent Jewish education for K-12 with the goal of ensuring a Jewish presence into the next century; and

  • $1 million to the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics in Oklahoma City to help complete its new science building, the Samson Science and Discovery Center.

Through his foundation, Mr. Schusterman helped build Succat Shalom: The Jerusalem Center for Children and their Families, the Parent-Child Center of Tulsa and the Schusterman-Benson Library in Tulsa. Organizations that receive substantial annual support from the Schusterman Family Foundation include Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the American Israel Education Foundation, National Conference of Community and Justice (NCCJ) and the Community Action Project of Tulsa County, especially for its Earned Income Tax Credit and school supply programs.

“This is a great loss not only for the Schusterman family, but for Tulsa, all of Oklahoma and indeed the entire country,” said Senator Don Nickles (R-OK, Assistant Majority Leader).

Reflecting on Charles and his dedication to Jewish renaissance, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg said, "Charles was driven by a passionate commitment to the Jewish people and our values. He showed daring generosity and willingness to think fresh.  In a very short time, he and Lynn established themselves as world leaders on the frontier of philanthropy for Jewish renewal. He was a good man and a wonderful, thoughtful, participating partner - someone who was tragically taken from us just as these great projects were beginning to flower.

Mr. Schusterman was active in many local, national and international organizations. He was the president of both STAR and PEJE, a co-Chair of the Hillel Board of Governors and an officer of AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee).

"Charlie achieved everything he had hoped to accomplish in business and, perhaps because of his own recognition that his time was limited, he was moving philanthropically more quickly than almost anyone else I know. He was the brightest of STARs, someone who burst upon the scene with great intensity and whose vision will continue to illuminate the Jewish world for years to come," said Michael Steinhardt, one of the three original partners in STAR.

Mr. Schusterman received numerous honors and awards. He is a member of the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, the Tulsa Hall of Fame and the Central High School Hall of Fame. In 1998, Mr. Schusterman received the Humanitarian Award of the National Jewish Center for Immunology and Respiratory Medicine and the Maimonides Award from the Jewish Federation of Tulsa. In 1999, he was presented with the Global Vision Award from the Tulsa Global Alliance and the Major Benefactors Honor Award of the Association for Library Trustees and Advocates.

In 2000, Mr. Schusterman spoke from the floor of both the Oklahoma State Senate and House of Representatives. This rare opportunity for an Oklahoma citizen to address the State Legislature was afforded Mr. Schusterman so he could respond to the issuance of a Concurrent Resolution citing him for his vision, extraordinary sense of community responsibility and willingness to give generously of his time as well as his resources to numerous causes and organizations.

The resolution cited Mr. and Mrs. Schusterman as people “who embody the pioneering spirit and the family values of the citizens of Oklahoma through their compassion, perseverance and steadfast commitment to enhancing the quality of life here and throughout the world” and as “outstanding Oklahomans, visionary leaders, exemplars of excellence and role models worthy of emulation.”

Mr. Schusterman thanked the legislators for this special privilege by expressing his “deepest humility and utmost appreciation.” He also said that he was “someone who has been blessed to live the American dream in this great, big, wonderful country of ours….”

Mr. Schusterman is survived by his wife, Lynn; children, Hal (Ruth), Stacy (Steven Dow) and Jay (Mary); six granddaughters; brother, Dan (Gloria); sister, Ruth; and brother-in-law, Albert Morrison.

In lieu of flowers, people who want to make a contribution in memory of Charles may wish to direct those gifts to one of the following four organizations:

  • STAR (Synagogue Transformation and Renewal) – 230 W. Monroe, Suite 2150, Chicago, IL  60606-4694

  • Heritage Academy – 2021 E.71st Street, Tulsa, OK  74136

  • CAP (Community Action Project) – 717 S. Houston, Suite 200, Tulsa, OK  74127

  • Schusterman Health Science Center at the University of Oklahoma –4502 E. 41st Street, Suite 3B32, Tulsa, OK  74135

Mr. Schusterman was interred at Rosehill Cemetery in Tulsa, Oklahoma on January 1, 2001.