Ben Fixman, 90; self-made industrialist, Federation supporter

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Ben Fixman, whose rags-to-riches story seems like a Jewish version of Horatio Alger’s, died Saturday, Nov. 7, of pneumonia at age 90. A longtime resident of greater St. Louis, he rose from abject poverty as a fatherless child in the old Kerry Patch neighborhood of St. Louis and built Diversified Industries into a globally important firm.

Mr. Fixmanprided himself on the fact that in his 80s, he still spoke “perfect Yiddish, a language that I learned as part of my heritage of being a proud Jew.”  

Mr. Fixman was also a generous supporter of the St. Louis Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Center. He served as general chairman of the 1970 Jewish Federation and Israel Emergency Fund Campaign, leading an effort that raised a then-record $10 million. He was also a strong supporter of the JCC’s Camp Sabra.

In 2009, atthe age of 84, Mr. Fixman published an autobiography titled “The Ben Fixman Story: From the Ghetto to the Gold”(Artful Tale Books, $24.95), as told to St. Louis writer Don Roth, a longtime professional associate and friend of Mr. Fixman. 

Mr. Fixman was born in St. Louis on Jan. 21, 1925, in an old flat at 1824 Carr St., “right next to Willy Weller’s junkyard,” as he recalled in his book. He was the son of Baruch (Bernard) and Rose Einbinder Fixman, Russian-Jewish immigrants. His father died of complications of bladder surgery when Ben was just 18 months old.He had a brother, Hymie, and three sisters,Celia, Nina and Martha. 

Mr. Fixman recalled that he essentially “never had a childhood” and that his family was so destitute he “had to start working at the age of 7, hustling newspapers on freezing street corners.”  

Kerry Patch was a genuine early-20th-century urban ghetto, where Irish and Jewish immigrant families and their children lived side by side. Street gangs were rampant, and survival required being adept with one’s wits as well as with one’s fists.

While Mr. Fixman could be tough in a fistfight, he was also fiercely loyal to his friends and business associates. 

“To me, a handshake between friends is a binding contract,” he told the Jewish Light in a past interview.

Because of the pressures of growing up during the Great Depression, education became a luxury his family could not afford. Mr. Fixman dropped out of school in the eighth grade and got a job as a janitor in a ladies ready-to-wear chain, working his way up to assistant to the president before joining the U.S. Army.

On his return from military service, Mr. Fixman began working 16-hour days in the scrap metal business. At 26, Mr. Fixman bought a scrap yard, and he would develop a cold process for extracting valuable and reusable metalsfrom scrap.Using his process, Mr. Fixman built his company, Diversified Metals, into Diversified Industries, a New York Stock Exchange-traded company with revenues of $330 million.

In Mr. Fixman’s book there is a reprint of a St. Louis Post-Dispatch profile of him by Gerald J. Meyer under the headline, “From Junkman to Captain of Industry.” Asked by a close friend whether he was offended by the headline calling him a junkman, Mr. Fixman said, “Absolutely not. That’s how I made my fortune.”

After the early 1970s, the business suffered some financial reversals, but Mr. Fixman remained involved with the company until 1991, when he retired. He continued to serve as a consultant to Kataman Metals, a metals trading business he founded in 1993 with his late friend and business partner Shig Katayama. The company was later sold.

Mr. Fixman was a passionate supporter of the State of Israel, and served as general chairman of the 1970 Jewish Federation and Israel Emergency Fund Campaign. Under his leadership, the campaign raised the largest amount in its history. Mr. Fixman made numerous trips to Israel, where he met Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Foreign Minister Abba Eban.

Mr. Fixman was a co-founder and generous supporter of the JCC’s Camp Sabra on the Lake of the Ozarks, to which he donated $250,000 toward the purchase price. He said that he wanted all Jewish children to have the camping opportunities he and his family could not afford when he was a child.

Mr. Fixman married Marilyn Schneider in 1944. They had three daughters. Marilyn died of breast cancer in 1980 and,  in her memory, Mr. Fixman founded the Marilyn Fixman Cancer Center Endowment Fund at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, which supports free education and services for cancer patients.

In 1985, Mr. Fixman remarried, to the former Elaine “Cookie” Blumoff Gerber, who noted that her husband “worked hard and had the drive to be able to achieve what he did.But he never forgot where he came from and was always helping other people.” 

Mr. Fixman was a member of Congregation Shaare Emeth at the time of his passing.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Fixman is survived by daughters Janis Kornblet Silverstein, Barbara (Joseph) Kennington and Jody Hansen, all of St. Louis County, and stepdaughters Nancy (Andy) Hayes of St. Louis County and Linda (the late Rob) Wilson of Overland Park, Kan.; seven grandchildren; five stepgrandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Private funeral services were held at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery on White Road, where Rabbi Jeffrey Stiffen and Cantor Seth Warner officiated.

Contributions are preferred to the charity of the donor’s choice.