Donor Story

Manny & Fern Steinfeld Give to UT

By Chandra Harris-McCray

Never Forget: Holocaust Survivor Completes Circle of Life by Giving Back

When his widowed mother sewed $10 inside his pants pocket, she stitched in her hope that Manny Steinfeld would make it to America.

By the age of 14, Steinfeld had never left south central Germany. But with Hitler leading Germany, his life depended on it. The small farming village of Josbach faded in the distance as Steinfeld rode on a train in the summer of 1938.

Five months later, his brother departed for Tel Aviv, where he fought for Israeli independence.

“The only money we are going to take with us when we pass away from this earth is what we have given away. … Because it is what we will be remembered by.”

—Manny Steinfeld, Former Chairman and President of Shelby Williams Industries

“My mother had a vision to get her children out of Germany,” Steinfeld said, reflecting on his mother’s written requests to the Hebrew Immigrant Society in New York. “She saw something that no one else saw.”

Holding onto the last living image of his mother’s tear-stained face and her hopes of freedom for her children, Steinfeld crossed the Atlantic Ocean on the S.S. New York and landed in Chicago, able to speak only 10 words of English.

Following high school graduation he enrolled at the University of Illinois. After a semester, Steinfeld joined the army as a paratrooper and intelligence specialist and eventually received the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and the European Campaign Medal with five campaign stars.

Steinfeld never made it back into his mother’s warm embrace, nor did his brother, Naftali, who was killed in Tel Aviv.

His mother’s dreams of getting his sister out of Germany never came to pass either. Steinfeld’s mother, Paula, and sister, Irma, died in the Stutthof Concentration Camp. It was just two months later when Steinfeld, who served his adopted country with distinction in two wars, helped liberate the survivors and bury the dead of the Wobbelin Concentration Camp in northern Germany.

After his military service, Steinfeld earned his statistics degree from Roosevelt University.

After another military stint during the Korean War, he and an associate took the reins of the bankrupt Great Northern Chair Company for $10,000 and renamed it Shelby Williams in 1953.

He learned the art of chair making from the “seat up.” Even after getting sprayed in the eye with a wood chip from the furniture production line, Steinfeld did not lose his gusto. He partially lost his sight in one eye, but he did not lose his vision for the company.

The retired Shelby Williams chairman and president was known for flipping over restaurant chairs to get a closer look at who made them and to scrutinize the manufacturing technique. He kept the books, managed payroll, and expanded the company’s reach by making sales calls.

In the first year, Shelby Williams went from producing 50,000 chairs with sales of $350,000 to being the chosen chair provider for national food service providers such as McDonald’s and Starbucks, along with national and global hotel companies such as Holiday Inn, Hilton, Sheraton, and Marriott. Sales topped $2.5 million by 1959.

By 1963, the company opened a production plant in Morristown, Tenn., which doubled in size within six months of opening.

Before Shelby Williams was sold in 1999, Steinfeld logged more than 100,000 miles a year to make sure his customers were pleased.

In 1975 on one of his many business trips, “I had my first encounter with the University of Tennessee,” recalled Steinfeld, who was seated next to former UT Vice President for Development and Alumni Affairs Jack Williams. “He was the most expensive seat companion I have ever had,” Steinfeld said with a laugh.

A few years later, Steinfeld and his wife of 60 years, Fern, established a scholarship endowment
at UT.

“A great satisfaction comes after reading letters from Steinfeld Scholars that say college would not have been possible without our help,” said Fern, who is president of her charitable foundation and serves as an officer of the Steinfeld Family Foundation.

The Steinfeld Scholarship made all the difference for recent graduate Whitney Ann Manahan. “I graduated without any debt or school loans because of Mr. Steinfeld’s help.”

The former College of Architecture and Design student said Steinfeld will never know what the scholarship meant to her. “Not only did he help me while I was in school, but he has given me a clean financial start to my future.

“What a gift,” Manahan said.

It is a gift the Steinfelds have given to more than 400 UT students since establishing the Fern and Manfred Steinfeld Fund for Excellence.

The Steinfelds also established the Fern and Manfred Steinfeld Program in Judaic Studies, which supports a Judaism scholar in the Department of Religious Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. They also generously support the colleges of architecture and design; engineering; and education, health, and human sciences, as well as Tennessee Athletics.

“I am most proud of how we have helped provide higher education for the next generation of businessmen and women,” said Steinfeld, who received the prestigious Horatio Alger Award for Distinguished Americans in 1981. In 1995 he was named UT’s Volunteer of the Year.

He said, “Life is not complete without giving back.

“The only money we are going to take with us when we pass away from this earth is what we have given away.  . . . Because it is what we will be remembered by.”