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A Legacy Built to Make Book On?

December 2, 2010
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Jerry did go, Joe, too: Owner Wolman (right) and then-Eagles coach Joe Kuharich in the '60s
Fly, Eagles, fly ...

But Jerry Wolman is flying standby these days since he lost his boarding pass decades ago, bumped from the current flight of fancy engulfing football and Philadelphia fans.

The rags-to-riches-to-tzuris story of the man from Shenandoah, Pa., shunned by many of the men and women he helped make millions for on his own trans-global ride of a lifetime, is at the core of the biography, Jerry Wolman: The World's Richest Man. The former Eagles owner/building czar/ small-town boy with skyscraper dreams will discuss his life at a Dec. 7 event sponsored by the Men's Club at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park.

Hang on for a bumpy ride as Wolman details his fiscal crash in which no golden parachutes were available to this man of silken dreams.

From good fortune to bad -- it all started with a vision from a fortune-teller in 1965, who predicted bad things could happen to a good person.

And her name wasn't Harold Kushner.

But Wolman, now 83, knows the names of those he feels slighted/stabbed him in the back. And he's back with a book -- written by Joseph and Richard Bockol -- that names them.

Including his own.Wolman acknowledges that his own nice-guy gumption bears some of the blame for the building blowouts, sports arena foul-outs and the loss of his high-flying Eagles. The Eagles had been a passion since he commuted from Shenandoah to Philly as a kid, selling his father's produce/buying into the city mystique, not knowing that coal country would one day lead him to the green of Emerald City only to dump him back in the black bins of bankruptcy.

The high-school dropout -- forced to quit by his father's disabling stroke, then having to shoulder the family business -- once dreamed of being a rabbi. But he found fortune instead in building skyscrapers that would go up like titans in the sky. Putting his John Hancock on the contract to erect what would have been the world's tallest building -- the John Hancock Center in Chicago -- was a signature event in Wolman's career.

But there was no insurance against the catastrophe when the building's caissons proved unstable, jettisoning the construction as the engineers and Wolman had envisioned it. If the Second City's new insurance center were to have a second chance, millions more would have to be raised, causing the Eagles owner to scramble for equity. But in the end, it wasn't possible, and he was forced into bankruptcy.

Attitudes changed on a dime -- make that millions of them. Sentiments of "ya done good" ceded to "you're done, buddy," as once- friendly lenders littered his in-box with pullout notices and "or else" memorandums.

Wolman is elsewhere now, in a different place. One thing he has not lost is his faith, he insists. "I came from an Orthodox family and have always had faith in the good Lord."

"Sometimes, I felt like it all was a test," Wolman muses of the good news, bad news and even more bad news he endured. "Who can be sure?"

Nice guys finish lost?

"I've often been told I'm too nice a guy, heard that a lot," says Wolman. "I wouldn't change now."

He changed the lives of many, all mentioned in the book: Jerry's "kids," up-and-comers in construction inspired and abetted -- morally and financially-- by the kid from coal country.

Was life too much of a good thing? When is enough enough? Did Wolman really need the Hancock to hang his emperor's robe on? Indeed, he claims, he was nearing the end of his building boom when the Chicago tower lowered its boom on his bank credit.

"I had one last project," he says of that period, "to develop a city within a city in Camden."

But it is the site just across the river that jump-starts his memories even now. Sitting on the sidelines as the Eagles take talons and talent to a possible Super Bowl must be difficult for a man who lost a fiscal arm and a leg before ceding the Eagles to Leonard Tose in the late '60s. "I still root for the Eagles," he says.

And he's still rooted in adventure.

Since filing for bankruptcy in 1967, Wolman -- taking on construction projects only to lose out to destructive financial times -- has been up and down, and up and down, ascending and descending dreams bravely made and badly broken.

And he may have enough in him yet to hit the button for the top floor. He says he is "negotiating for a movie based on the book; we're 99 percent there."

He doesn't need a fortune-teller to tell the story. After all, he does have that iconic image familiar to many. And even those with pie-in-the-sky history can withstand a pie-in-the face comment.

"I was in Philadelphia a year or two ago, when a lady keeps looking at me," obviously recognizing this distinctive developer/construction magnate with magnetic appeal.

"She comes up, and asks me, 'Are you Soupy Sales?' " 

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