Why I Am A Patriotic Millionaire: Ellyn Gelson

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I’ve always considered myself to be middle class. I don’t think of myself as a millionaire, but when I look at my financial statement I say, “Okay, well, I guess I qualify.”

My father was a physician. He worked hard but he loved practicing medicine which provided his family with a comfortable life. Politically, he was a Democrat but in today’s terms he would be defined as a socialist. I remember when the first whisperings of national health care arose, my father emphasized that affordable medical insurance and medical care was an absolute necessity for all Americans. Often, my father would treat patients who didn’t have much money, yet he felt that providing medical care was his calling. His purpose in life was to heal… money was secondary. It wasn’t unusual for him to make house calls in the middle of the night if a patient needed him. If they slipped him $5.00 as a token of gratitude, so be it. It was his way of giving.

Fast forward through the 27 years of marriage to a man whose philosophies were diametrically opposed to how I was raised, my philanthropic values became dormant. It wasn’t until I met Bernie Gelson, the love of my life who would become my second husband, that those values were reawakened and strengthened.

Bernie founded Gelson’s Market, a well-known chain of upscale supermarkets in Southern California. He was born in Sioux City, Iowa, to an alcoholic father and an illiterate mother who owned a small grocery store… the family lived behind the store. Bernie’s mother would make cheese which he would deliver to customers from his wagon. Yet the family, which included his older sister, Dorothy, and younger brother, Gene, was profoundly poor, often needing assistance from others so they would have coal to keep them warm during the frigid winter months. Eventually, when Bernie was 17, the family moved to Southern California and bought a small grocery store with living quarters upstairs. Bernie and Gene would go to school in the morning, then run the store in the afternoon. Dorothy assisted the family by working as a salesgirl (that’s what they were called in those days) at Broadway Department Store.

When World War II broke out, Bernie enlisted and was transferred to Sheppard Field, Texas, to teach basic training for the Army Air Corp while Gene became a fighter pilot.  By the time the war was over, the brothers had amassed a “grand fortune” of $1,500.00 which they used to buy a little grocery store in Tujunga, California. They worked hard while emphasizing quality, cleanliness and service. Because the store did well, they decided to purchase a larger store in North Hollywood called The Village Mart. Their simple philosophy continued: Provide the best quality meats, poultry and fish, the finest fresh produce, a wide-range of name-brand grocery items, treat employees like family, and treat the customers as you would guests in your own home.

In 1951, they took the big step and opened what would be their first full-line large supermarket called Gelson’s. Rather than spend money on advertising, they invested in hiring more full-time employees, closing on major holidays so employees could spend time with their families, and offering a 100% guarantee of satisfaction on every item they sold.

Now, some successful people think, “I made myself successful, and I’m going to enjoy the fruits of my labor,” but not Bernie. Bernie saw it as his life’s calling to give back. He was a liberal who believed that by paying higher wages than the industry standard, he would have happier employees and less employee turnover. His employees were all union members because he believed that unions are what create the middle class, and that the middle class drives the economy…  not millionaires.

Bernie also had compassion for people in need. In addition to spending eight years as a house father at a local orphanage, that trait was evident in many of his life stories — always reaching out to help others in need, and feeling grateful that he was able to do so.  Here is one interesting example: A struggling screenwriter dropped by the store to cash a check but his last check had bounced. Bernie said, “What are you doing? You’re coming in with another check? The last one bounced!” He responded, “Bernie, you’ve got to help me. I have an appointment in London, and I have an opportunity to sell this script.” The man needed $500, which at that time was a king’s ransom, and said, “If I can sell this script, not only will this check be good, but also the other check.” Bernie thought about it for a moment and proceeded to cash the check, figuring that if $500 dollars was all that was standing between this man and his success, who was he to stand in the way? The script sold and the man became a very successful screenwriter in Hollywood. And yes, he made good on BOTH checks. Years later, this man’s daughter became a newspaper columnist who wrote a column about how her father always attributed his success to Bernie Gelson, because he was willing to take the risk.

These are the kinds of stories that I used to hear… not so much from Bernie, but more often from the people who knew him. And these stories truly resonated with me. “We have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, and we need to reach out and lend a helping hand in any way we can” was his motto.

Bernie passed away in 2005 at the age of 84 and, since then, I have made every effort to honor his philanthropic spirit, knowing how important it was to him. Last year, I read an article about George Zimmer in the Los Angeles Times. I love hearing about how people made it, about what happened in a person’s life that inspired them to become successful. In that article, Zimmer spoke glowingly about Patriotic Millionaires and its mission resonated with me immediately. I knew that this was an organization that Bernie would support.

After investigating Patriotic Millionaires, I decided to become a member. This gave me the opportunity to learn even more about the organization. The bottom line is that their policy points focus on the same values that are important to me and that were important to Bernie.  Being with people who are phenomenally successful is truly inspiring to me. While I am not in that group of self-made millionaires, I was very fortunate to be married to a man who was and whose values complement the PM philosophy and mine.

Being with the Patriotic Millionaires — being in the company of people who are like-minded, who share my value system — well, I guess it’s a way of having Bernie back in my life. I’m just perpetuating his story and his life’s dreams. That’s my job.

-Ellyn Gelson

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