For the last 10 years of his life, George Ross poured himself into building a National Museum of American Jewish History in the thick of the city's historic Independence Mall.
He lived just long enough to see his dream realized. The 77-year-old investment banker and philanthropist died from lung cancer in his Bryn Mawr home on July 8.
He was, by all accounts, not the kind of guy who took no for an answer — a quality that helped him realize his vision not only for the museum but for many other Jewish and civic organizations.
"He was an unstoppable force," said former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who had been close to Ross since he first ran for mayor of Philadelphia.
"We will miss his commitment, we'll miss his ability to get things done, we'll miss his passion for doing things that reflect well on all of us. But most of all, we'll miss the example he set," said Rendell.
More than 700 people gathered to offer their condolences at a memorial service on Tuesday, held in the museum he'd worked tirelessly to create and which bears the name: the Lyn and George Ross Building. Guests included Cardinal Justin Rigali and former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter. Speakers included friends, colleagues and family members.
"It's no overstatement to say we wouldn't have this museum, we wouldn't have the astonishing national presence we have without George Ross," said Michael Rosenzweig, the museum's president and CEO, who cut short his trip to Israel after hearing the news that his friend had died. "He was simply at the center of the museum in every sense."
Together, Ross and his wife, Lyn, drove the $154 million capital campaign for the project — no easy feat at any time, and especially not during great economic hardship, Rosenzweig said. They were always ready to jump on a plane to meet any potential donors, he said, and getting a "yes" wasn't the end of the conversation if Ross thought the donor should be able to give at a higher level.
The onetime partner at Goldman Sachs proved to be one of those rare philanthropists who played equally prominent roles in the Jewish community and the city's larger civic and cultural landscape.
The former vice president and secretary of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia also played key roles at Drexel University — where he chaired the board of trustees and helped oversee an expansion — as well as the Philadelphia Orchestra and numerous other secular institutions.
"George Ross was a pillar in the Philadelphia Jewish and secular community," said Ira M. Schwartz, Federation's CEO. "He will be missed, but his memory and accomplishments will undoubtedly serve as an inspiration for others."
Federation president Leonard Barrack said that "the Jewish community has lost a giant."
His parents, children of Russian immigrants, raised Ross and his brother, Charles, in West Philadelphia. While his father sold machinery to support the family, Ross studied business as an undergraduate at Drexel University.
Though he was proud of his Jewish background, he changed his last name from Rosenkoff after graduating because it was hard to pronounce, Lyn Ross said.
Max Hausen, rabbi emeritus of the family's synagogue, Main Line Reform Temple-Beth Elohim in Wynnewood, said that although Ross was not ritualistic, "he was always proud of his Jewishness and always proud of his American heritage."
After four years of managing the toy department at a Sears Roebuck, Ross started law school at the University of Pennsylvania. He loved it, his wife said, but a bout of mono forced him to take a break after one semester.
By the time he'd recovered, she said, he was so far behind that he decided to investigate other career opportunities. They met when he came to interview for a job at the advertising agency where she worked in Vineland, N.J. He left with something better than a job offer — a date who would become his wife within nine months. They were married for 51 years.
His job prospects worked out, too. He started at Goldman Sachs in 1959 and was named one of the firm's youngest partners in 1971.
As successful as he became in his career, "he never forgot where he came from," said his son, Michael, 44, of Center City. "He never lost sight that he had an obligation to give back."
An art collector and drama enthusiast, Ross also supported the Walnut Street Theatre, played a role in building the new Kimmel Center and served on the board of the Philadelphia Orchestra since 1985.
Education and youth also figured prominently on his agenda.
He was a supporter of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia and, in 1987, helped Hillel establish a presence at Drexel University.
In 1985, he co-founded Operation Understanding with former U.S. Rep. William Gray. The program brought Jewish and African-American teenagers together in a summer travel program designed to build "bridges of understanding among future leaders of our community," Gray explained.
It had surprised them both a little to see how much the organization had flourished at a 25-year anniversary celebration last fall, Gray said.
"All the kids, black and Jewish, went on to do exactly what we'd hoped and they stayed close together," Gray said.
Though Ross retired in 1990, he kept busy between international trips and winters in Palm Beach, Fla., and as chairman of the board of directors at his alma mater. Under his leadership, the board hired a new president and, against popular opinion, purchased a building that later became a key piece in the campus' expansion.
"Not only did he have the desire and motivation to build and change institutions, but he touched people on a very personal level, and when he became your champion and advocate you felt you could achieve anything," Michael Ross said.
Developer Ron Rubin, a former Federation president who spoke during the memorial service, said during the 1980s that he and Ross had arranged missions to Israel for business and political leaders, including then-Gov. Dick Thornburgh.
"George was so emotionally involved that at one point on that trip, he actually carried the luggage of some of the more demanding guests," said Rubin, who later partnered with Ross on the museum project.
Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, where Ross had been a board member, officiated at the memorial service.
Kula said that when the idea for building a museum was first hatched, "there couldn't have been more than a handful of people who believed" that it would happen.
But Ross made the compelling case that "there was something about the very story of this country that matched up with the Jewish people that needed to be told."
In addition to his wife and son, Ross is survived by a daughter, Merry, two grandchildren and a brother.
Staff writer Bryan Schwartzman contributed to this report.