Boca’s icon of philanthropy Countess Henrietta de Hoernle, 103

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By: Dale King

Special to the Boca Newspaper

BOCA RATON, FL – Henrietta, Countess de Hoernle, was born in Germany and spent much of her life in New York. But she and her husband, Count Adolph de Hoernle, retired to Boca Raton in 1981, claiming it as the “Jewel of the Gold Coast,” and adopting it as their new home.

The de Hoernle’s themselves became South Florida’s jewels of philanthropy, donating millions of dollars to charity. Their names adorn dozens of buildings throughout Palm Beach County – from structures at Florida Atlantic and Lynn universities and Palm Beach State College to the amphitheater at Mizner Park, the Red Cross building on Federal Highway, the Wick Theatre in Boca Raton and the Children’s Home Society building in West Palm Beach.

The Countess, a charming, sharp-witted woman with an effusive sense of humor and sly smile, passed away on Friday, July 22, at a local hospice center, about two months shy of her 104th birthday.

Longtime friend, artist/sculptor Yaacov Heller, one of her last visitors, said he sat by her bedside and read an article about her late friend, Florence “Flossy” Keesely, printed in this month’s edition of the Boca Newspaper.  He said she smiled when he talked about her chum who was also a major charitable donor. Flossy died in January at the age of 101 – and the Countess, despite her pain, was present for Flossy’s memorial service.

“That day, the Countess gave me a $1,000 check in Flossy’s memory for the Rotary Club of Boca Raton’s ‘Future Stars’ program,” Heller said. Flossy, a Rotarian herself, strongly supported that project that gave young people a chance to perform before audiences.

Heller sculpted the bronze statues of the Count and Countess de Hoernle at Mizner Park and also created the “Flossy’s Fountain” statue in front of the amphitheater for which the Countess – nicknamed “Rita” by her friends – donated a million dollars and won the naming rights.

Artist Heller said the monument to the de Hoernles that he created lists 42 buildings named either after the Count, Countess or both. “She continued to donate money after those statues were put up.”

On her 100th birthday in September 2012, a group called the Countess 100 Committee arranged a major “Countess Appreciation Day” Gala that raised thousands of dollars for charity. By her estimation at the time, she and her husband had given about $40 million to charitable endeavors.

Born in Karlsruhe, Germany, on Sept. 24, 1912, the Countess was the daughter of musicians — her mother was a violinist, her father a pianist. She came by boat to the U.S. in 1931 to live with her grandparents in Jackson Heights, Queens, N.Y.

She met all three of her husbands at a German-American social and music club. Her first, Karl Bisping, died in an accident. They had one daughter.

Her second husband, the one she later said was the great love of her life, Jeff Gass, contracted malaria while serving in the U.S. Army in the South Pacific during World War II and died of complications of the disease in 1949. They, too, had a daughter.

In 1950, she met Adolph de Hoernle, a fellow German immigrant and an engineer who had founded a tool-and-die company in the late 1920s, at a masquerade ball. They married, moved to Bronxville, N.Y. and she began volunteering at a hospital, where shiny plaques declaring, “This room is donated by…” inspired her lifetime of giving.

Together, the Count and Countess soon began to provide music scholarships to singers through their Liederkranz society and among the first recipients was opera star, Gene Boucher. Adolph sold his company, Stewart Stamping, in 1965 and following considerable world travel and many visits to the area, the couple retired to Boca Raton.

Boca Raton Regional Hospital received their first “Sunshine State” gift, and many more donations followed, to health organizations, educational facilities, scholarships, cultural programs, community singing and theater groups, abused women and children, students, veterans, first-responders, the elderly and, in particular, the very needy, sick, and poor.

The Countess often recalled how she purchased the former Florida East Coast Railroad station on Dixie Highway as a birthday present to her husband.  The station, which had fallen into ruin, was restored and turned over to the Boca Raton Historical Society.

By de Hoernle’s account, the Knights of Malta, one of several European chivalric orders to which they belonged, informed them that her husband had a legitimate claim to the title through his family and urged the couple to start using the titles, Count and Countess de Hoernle.

Despite her wealth, the Countess was humble. While she had a driver who took her to various events, her personal vehicle was a Toyota or similar car.

She said the reason she wanted her name or that of her husband to be placed on buildings was to encourage others to give. Normally, she made her donations as “challenge grants” so they could be matched.  Even if the recipient didn’t do so, the Countess came through with her share.

Her philanthropic motto was: “Give while you live so you know where it goes.”

Rosemary and Ben Krieger of Boca Raton were longtime close friends. “On one of her birthdays, she said she wanted to spend it with Ben and me, and she asked us to take her to Duffy’s.  We had a celebration, just the three of us,” though many in the dining room recognized her.

“She has devoted her whole life to giving,” Rosemary recalled.  “Ben and I loved her so much. There are people in life who touch you in a special way. That was her.  Now, she and Flossy are in heaven together.”

The Countess is survived by her daughters Diana Burgess, of New York, and Carol Wagman, of York, Pa.

A Celebration of Life service will be held on Aug. 6 at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church, 100 NE Mizner Blvd., Boca Raton. A viewing will begin at 9:30 a.m. with the service at 10:30.