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The extraordinary work of Alex Katz: part P.T.Barnum, part brains, part chutzpah

Somebody, somewhere, has probably said, “That Alex Katz, he’s a piece of work.” That phrase could imply anything from insult to amusement to profound admiration. In reference to Alex Katz, however, one can safely assume that it indicates someone from whom one can expect surprises, at the very least.

Abraham Katz, Alex’s father, gave his children a good education, sturdy self-confidence, and a strong work ethic. He told them, “It doesn’t matter what work you do. Just do it” (and do it well went without saying). By the time Alex reached his early teens, he was a working photographer earning $100 to $200 cash per week—good money for a kid in the mid-1960s. Today he’s the president of Kason Industries, known worldwide for its production of industrial hardware.

As trustees of the Abraham J. & Phyllis Katz Foundation, Alex Katz and his brother David still do many things well, specifically as they determine which organizations, innovative research projects, and life-enhancement programs will receive Katz Family Foundation support. Katz is also a voracious reader and a passionate lover of the arts. In casual conversation he can rhapsodize about works that, for him, elicit what he calls “the wow factor”: a masterful octave leap by Pavarotti, for instance, or the pure simplicity and elegance in a Mozart piano sonata. He recounts such examples to emphasize what most piques his interest: artistry. Whenever Katz encounters something finely designed or deftly structured—whether a breathtaking performance, an advance in medical care, or cutting-edge research—it attracts him like a moth to a flame. And when Alex Katz is attracted, he tends to act. For both Alex and David, the selective Katz Foundation philanthropy is based in projects that satisfy their desire to make life better and fuller for children, parents, and families everywhere, particularly projects mitigating conditions that cause deep suffering.

“We’ve always given significant amounts of whatever we earn to support charities,” Katz says. “It’s an inherent part of what we consider an appropriate way to live.” Thanks to the Katz Family Foundation, many well-designed pieces of work are thriving at Emory and elsewhere. These include medical research, medical care, education, service programs and the arts. Katz family support to Emory ranges across departments, programs, and years. And the momentum shows no signs of slowing down.

In 2007, the seductive wow struck Katz when he read in the online journal Molecular Vision about Jeff Boatright’s research on synthetic bear bile (TUDCA) as a means of treating, possibly even preventing, retinitis pigmentosa (RP).

“Jeff put out this thing that said, here’s a folk remedy, used for thousands of years, and he wants to test its validity,” Katz recalls. “I thought it was cool, and I know it’s hard to get sustained funding for something like that. I love challenges, so I asked him, ‘How much do you need? Let’s play and see what happens!’”

Not content just to write a check, Katz became what Boatright calls the project’s “chief cheerleader.” Over multiple years, Katz has encouraged and supported while Boatright, with colleagues John Nickerson and Machelle Pardue, further investigated the role of TUDCA as a neuroprotector of mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell.

The Katz Foundation continues to fund the Boatright/Pardue projects, as well as other retina research led by Timothy Olsen. And Katz continues to be circumspect about his role: He wants to watch, to learn, to aid, and not to boss.

David Woolf, former senior director of development at the Emory Eye Center, notes that Katz’s approach to funding is atypical: “Many donors want to see a quick home run. Alex is more realistic; he knows that progress can be slow and that it takes money to sustain the work.” Katz says, “It also takes nerve. The donor has to accept the possibility of failure and how valuable that can be; it’s okay to fail, if that helps us move along. You’ve gotta be willing to take risks, to go on a wing and a prayer. If you don’t will the impossible, what chance do you have of accomplishing anything?”

In his forthright way, Katz admits that he’s a showman: “I bring the circus, something outside the humdrum. At first people aren’t sure what to think, but then they begin to enjoy it. It’s the only way I know how to fit in. I’m part P.T. Barnum, part brains, and part chutzpah.”

To those who know Katz best, he’s also—in huge part—heart. Beneath his showmanship, his brilliance, and his capacity for decisive action, there’s an acute sensitivity to the joys and sorrows of life.

Fact is, there’s nobody like Katz. Quirky, fresh, funny, generous, he is constantly alert to the next big challenge that can further his vision of health and happiness for everyone who lacks them. “There’s so much grief in the world, and you can’t cure it all,” he says. “You can only focus on helping in small, tight areas and hope you leave the world no worse off than you found it.” People who interact with him recognize that Katz is perpetually on a roll and that he will not rest until whatever he’s incubating at the moment is up and running at full, benevolent potential. Once your mind trades sparks with this high-powered generator, you may catch yourself telling someone—shaking your head in amazement, but with an affectionate twinkle in your eye: “That Alex Katz, he’s a piece of work, all right.”

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