Joseph Shanis, 97, of Philadelphia, a retired corporate attorney, department-store executive, and philanthropist, died Friday, March 17, of heart disease at home.
Born in Philadelphia to Russian immigrants, Mr. Shanis learned how to run a business by watching his parents expand a corner grocery store in Chester into a wholesale grocery business.
At age 5, he stood on a chair at his birthday party and invited the partygoers to his bar mitzvah, eight years in advance. It was his first effort to gather friends and family around him, and it would set the pattern for future interactions.
Later, "nothing made him happier than seeing the whole family, including children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, assembled in one place for birthdays and holidays," his family wrote.
After graduating from Chester High School and Temple University, and the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1944, he worked for the next decade at Fox Rothschild O'Brien & Frank, a Philadelphia law firm.
In 1947, Mr. Shanis married Louise Stern, and the couple had three children, whom they reared in Melrose Park.
In the mid-1950s, Harry I. Stern, Mr. Shanis' father-in-law and the owner of Stern's Department Store, asked him to join the family business established in 1897. Mr. Shanis agreed, and rose to chairman of the board.
Along with brother-in-law Harris Stern, Mr. Shanis ran the chain of 25 stores for 40 years ending in 2001 when the last stores were closed or converted to Macy's.
"In all those years, there was never a bad word between the two of us. We were a team," Harris Stern said.
During their marriage, the Shanises became interested in supporting art and cultural causes such as Friends of Independence National Historical Park, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Portrait Gallery in the Second Bank of the United States.
After 35 years of marriage, Louise S. Shanis died in 1982. Five years later, Mr. Shanis married Carole Price, an interior designer from New York whom he had met through mutual friends. The couple settled in Society Hill, and later they moved to Center City near the headquarters of the Philadelphia Art Alliance.
"The organization was in the middle of a change, so Joe decided the Art Alliance would be a good place for us to be involved," Price said.
From there, the couple's philanthropy grew to include the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Curtis Institute of Music, the Marian Anderson Award, Friends of Rittenhouse Square, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, and the Metropolitan AIDS Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance, or MANNA. In 2002, MANNA gave the couple its first Outstanding Community Leadership Award.
"He was very low-key and wanted to work behind the scenes. It was never about him," his wife said. "He would help anybody, but was not one to be thanked publicly for it. He cared about people."
Mr. Shanis and his wife attended numerous fund-raising galas for the organizations. "He liked a good party," said his son Donald Shanis. "He was a very social guy, very comfortable around people."
"He was eager to go to every event," his wife said. "If you sent him an invite, he would go to its opening. He'd probably be the first one on the dance floor."
The Shanises became ambassadors for the city of Philadelphia, often hosting dinner parties at their Philadelphia home for celebrities such as screen actor Gregory Peck, actor and record producer Quincy Jones, and former TV talk-show host Oprah Winfrey.
Mr. Shanis' jovial outlook was well-received by the city's philanthropic community. In September 2003, after hosting a dinner for tenor Luciano Pavarotti at his home, Mr. Shanis encountered the famous singer backstage at a Kimmel Center concert that raised $400,000. "There is Philadelphia," the Shanis family said Pavarotti remarked.
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Shanis is survived by children Harry "Hal" Shanis, Nona Melnick, Jennifer Price, and Jonathan Price; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Services were Wednesday, March 22.
Memorial donations may be made to the building fund of the Philadelphia Art Alliance, 251 S. 18th St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19103.