A lthough eight months out of the year he and his wife, Wendy, live in Boca Raton, Florida, Avron Fogelman still has a heart for Memphis. Over past decades we’ve seen his mark on many philanthropic and civic projects, from pulling the Memphis Chicks baseball team out of a deficit in the 1980s, to awarding scholarships to underprivileged students in more recent years. While he was in Memphis this February for his 75th birthday celebration, the retired real estate developer took time to talk with us about baseball, sports memorabilia, books, filling voids where he finds them, and the joy he feels hearing from people he’s helped.
You’ve been involved in several sports programs. What’s your favorite?
I’ve always had a passion for baseball. I played in the Rotary Club league at Overton Park when I was 7 or 8. That’s probably one of the reasons I wanted to own a major league baseball team.
That team was the Kansas City Royals. It’s been 30 years since the Royals beat the St. Louis Cardinals to win the World Series. Your memories of that time?
Pure exhilaration. Truly it was the thrill of thrills. And the ironic thing, it was a seven-game series and we’d lost three of the first four games. So we had a mountain to climb and that made the exhilaration even greater.
So many Memphians are Cardinal fans. Did you catch flak about that?
I was also a Cardinal fan up to that time. I was very surprised that so many Memphians supported the Royals because of me, and that the Royals received so much support during those years. And we ended up having a farm team here, the Memphis Chicks, before the Cardinals did. A good relationship.
You have an impressive sports memorabilia collection. Where is it now?
I have built a museum in Boca Raton to display it, but I am trying to find a way to permanently bring it back to Memphis. In fact, the ball is starting to roll in that direction. It covers a lot of sports, but is primarily directed toward baseball, and the historical significance of all the items can’t be overlooked. I’ve got Babe Ruth’s first uniform, his last uniform, the uniform Roger Maris wore when he broke Babe Ruth’s home run record, and so much more.
Talk about your Fogelman Scholars Program, helping city schools students go to the University of Memphis. Were you satisfied with what it accomplished?
Nothing is as good as you want it to be. But when you’re objective and you realize that it did do so much to help young people go to college, you have to say it’s a success.
Do you keep up with any recipients?
Some keep up with me. I got a letter from a young lady who is doing clinical work at Harvard this year. She wrote a very nice letter telling me where she is and that she has a doctorate degree and wanted to thank me. This was within the last six months. I get letters like that out of the blue from time to time and I very much appreciate it.
Now you’re committed to sending children to the city’s summer camp programs in community centers. What prompted that?
The need. There’s got to be a way to keep kids off the streets in long hot summers and give them a structured environment. I’m not sure of the amount yet, but it’s around $85 per student to cover the basic costs. I told Mayor [A C] Wharton I’d foot the bill for those who can’t pay for it.
Wharton was recently quoted as saying you write him a letter each year. More on that?
It’s not a regular event, but it’s a friend communicating with a friend that I’m pleased to see certain things happen. It comes from my interest and a desire to stay in touch.
You’ve also committed funding to the Center for Professional Career Development at the U of M. Why do you think that’s necessary?
I observed through my association and relationship with Dr. [Rajiv] Grover [dean of the Fogelman College of Business and Economics] that students were graduating but were not really equipped to enter the workplace to the extent the dean and I thought they should be. The center will give students direction in writing resumes, in making speeches, and having successful job interviews. It’s a multilayered curriculum, all directed toward making the student better prepared for employment.
You’re a graduate of Tulane, but you’ve been a good friend to the U of M. Did you ever attend?
I attended one year of law school the first year it opened. Then I decided I needed to make a living.
What’s your role now with Fogelman Management Group (formerly Fogelman Properties), the real estate development firm you founded?
I am chairman of the board. I assume responsibilities, but my sons — Rick and Mark [CEO and president, respectively] — are doing a marvelous job. I have another son, Hal, who runs a market research company.
What keeps you busy in Boca Raton?
My number-one job is to improve my golf score (smiles). My second job is to take part in philanthropy, and thirdly, in educational resources to enrich myself. At Florida Atlantic University, which is not far from my home, I take courses and attend several lectures a week. Anything with history or biographies. I’m just a keen observer of history and individuals.
What do you like to read?
I just finished David McCullough’s book, John Adams . I was with the author a couple of weeks ago, and I enjoyed our discussion about Harry Truman. I’ve also met and spent time with Woodward and Bernstein, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and other prominent authors.
What do you want to do that you haven’t done?
To travel more than I have lately. But I also want to fill voids that I see. I may not bring peace to the world and I don’t have an open checkbook — but whatever I can do the rest of my life to fill some needs in the community, I want to do it.