Catching Up With Kurt Landsberger

By on August 8, 2011

David Landsberger, Kurt Landsberger, Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. and Essex County Environmental Center Director Tara Casella earlier this year at a ceremony to mark the Landsberger Foundation's work for the Environmental Center.

If you want to chat with Kurt Landsberger, you’ve only got a small window of opportunity every week. Though past 90, he still goes to work three days a week. When not in the office, he needs time for writing–weekly newspaper columns and his sixth book. Or time for philanthropy, largely through the foundation he created, just like his businesses, with his late wife Anny.

All of which means that, if you are going to catch up with Landsberger, it will likely be a moving interview that winds through the halls and production rooms of Maddak Inc., which makes a wide range of products for the elderly, injured and disabled. The latter is a market near and dear to Landsberger’s heart, in no small part because he was born, in Prague, with a club foot.

The topics Landsberger has chosen for his books have been as eclectic as his life. He first book was about his great-great uncle William Steinitz, who was America’s first chess champion and the reason why Landsberger donated funds for the outdoor chess tables in Verona Park. He wrote about German prisoners of war in America (he was a prison camp translator) and a nearly forgotten, but highly contentious era in Verona’s history: When the Verona Board of Education brought children from Newark here for schooling in 1968 and 1969. His new book, which should be published early next year, is about the world of his youth: A look at how Nazi Germany took businesses away from their owners. It was a little longer in the making because Landsberger needed a translator to help him through some of the records. “German is a difficult language and I have forgotten some of it,” says Langsberger, who grew up in Vienna before emigrating to the United States in 1939.

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But he has not forgotten how to run a business, something that he has been doing since 1946, when he and his wife began to make aprons for laboratory workers. Their first order was for 10 gross from Fisher Scientific. “We didn’t even know what a gross was,” laughs Landsberger. “I cut, my wife sewed.” That business grew into Bel-Art Products, a global manufacturer of laboratory equipment that is now run by one of Landsberger’s two sons, David.

Though business dominates much of Landsberger’s week, it does not dominate his life. “Neither my wife nor I were interested in making money for money’s sake,” he says. Instead, they focused on saving the natural environment in and around Verona. They began with the so-called First Mountain, where Kip’s Castle sits, and expanded to the Second, better known as the Hilltop. “I expected 80 people to come to the first Hilltop meeting, which was in my basement,” he recalls. “One-hundred-fifty showed up and many had to wait outside.”

Though the Hilltop was saved from the pervasive development envisioned in early plans, the irony is that that is where Landsberger now lives, in the Highlands at Hilltop. If the other residents want to know how their complex came to be, all they need to do is read “Between the First and Second Mountains, Verona, N. J.” Its author? Kurt Landsberger.

The Verona Park chess tables are a nod to Landsberger's great-great uncle, America's first major chess champion.

Hilltop trail photo on the home page by Fred Goode.

 

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