Doers to Donors: Bernie Marcus Reveals Act of Charity That Changed His Life

As Philanthropy Roundtable recently marked the one-year anniversary of our interview series, “Doers to Donors,” we are revisiting a conversation between the Roundtable’s President and CEO Elise Westhoff and The Home Depot co-founder and philanthropist Bernie Marcus from our first episode. “Doers to Donors” highlights innovators and self-made entrepreneurs who are improving lives through charitable giving, and during this discussion, Marcus revealed how one act of charity changed his life forever.

Before Bernie Marcus co-founded The Home Depot, the world’s largest home improvement retailer, he ran a home improvement store based in New Jersey called Handy Dan. At the time, he worked 60-70 hours a week and was not active in philanthropy.

“I didn’t have much to give to charity,” he recalled. “But one day, something happened in my life and it’s almost as though God makes things happen to you that change your whole attitude.”

In his interview with Westhoff, he recounted a story about one of his employees, who came into his office with tears in his eyes. He told Marcus he wanted to say goodbye. The young man had just been diagnosed with cancer and doctors instructed him to put his affairs in order because he only had a few months to live.

“I started crying with him,” Marcus said. “He had a wife. He had two kids. [He] was a young guy and his life was over.”

As Marcus considered the young man’s tragic predicament, he recalled a charitable event he had attended for City of Hope, a world-class cancer care hospital in California.

During the event, the president of City of Hope talked about cures the hospital had developed for cancer patients, many of whom were young people. He urged the crowd to call the hospital if they ever had a need for care. After his visit with the young man, Marcus contacted the president of the hospital, explained the situation and got an appointment.

“They didn’t treat him like a patient,” Marcus said. “They treated him like a human being. … They did all of the tests and asked him to come back with his parents and his wife.”

The doctors explained to the young man and his family that though he had a terminal illness, he would be an appropriate candidate for the hospital’s latest clinical trial for a new cancer treatment.

“The end of the story is that they saved his life,” Marcus said.

Following the successful treatment, the young man visited Marcus’s office again with his family, this time to thank him for his help when it seemed all hope was lost.

“At that moment I knew I didn’t do it, but I helped save his life,” Marcus said. “And the impact on me was an impact that would last the rest of my life – doing things for people.”

The phone call to City of Hope was the beginning of a long relationship with the hospital. Marcus joined the board and served for 35 years, helping to raise hundreds of millions of dollars by his estimate. Today, City of Hope serves approximately 115,000 patients each year.

Marcus has continued his commitment to helping people access lifesaving medical care. Some of his more recent philanthropic work focuses on helping injured veterans and first responders who have sustained traumatic brain injuries and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

To watch the full episode of “Doers to Donors” featuring Bernie Marcus, click here and listen to the podcast on Apple, Google and Spotify.