Sid Gefen

By Laura Jane Pittman
Resident Community News

Sid Gefen is a bundle of energy. At 93, his health can often be frustrating, but it doesn’t slow down his enthusiasm, drive, and dedication to help better the city he has called home for 72 years.

Gefen is still a sought-after, popular leader and advocate who excelled in almost too many industries to list. Yet it is his 40-year history of community and non-profit work – after a series of profitable careers – that is possibly his greatest legacy, aside from the grandchildren and great-grandchildren that light up his life. The Sidney J. Gefen Riverwalk Park on the Northbank Riverwalk is another reflection of his living legacy, as the naming rights of parks are reserved for those who have passed. It took a special waiver through city council passage- another exception to the rule, something Gefen has been his entire life.
“I love working on things to help bring Jacksonville alive,” said Gefen, who today serves as President of the Eric Friedheim Foundation, the philanthropic trust set up in 2002 after the death of Gefen’s best friend. Friedheim, a journalist and publisher of magazines and travel guides, became a close friend after the two were introduced in West Palm Beach social circles. As Gefen developed trade shows around the globe, the two traveled extensively and partnered to unveil new options around the world for travelers and tourism industry

Knowing Friedheim never had children, Gefen’s guidance of the Foundation has helped to deliver scholarships to promising University of Florida students attending the Eric Friedheim Tourism Institute. The school has developed an entire department dedicated to the study of tourism, recreation and sports development. “Quite ironic, my friend is sending children he never had to school,” Gefen said, “he would be happy knowing this was achieved on his behalf.”

A Jacksonville resident since 1941, Gefen came here to repair aircraft at NAS Jax just before the start of WWII, he arrived with thirty-five dollars in his pocket and the rest is history. Gefen has done enough in the course of his one lifetime to fill up several. He owned Duval Marine, invested in real estate, entered and left the car dealership business, began working in electronics and selling and repairing TVs (even building four launch pads at Cape Canaveral) and branched into outdoor advertising, ultimately selling a lot of that business to Clear Channel and CBS.

Somehow along the way, he found time to marry Jacksonville native Lois Isaac, start a family and raise three daughters. The family became active members of the Ahavath Chesed congregation, where Gefen still worships today. Matter of fact, Gefen attended a musical celebration to showcase the prosperity of programming, illustrating the impact of his generosity and gift giving to the cultivation of music at The Temple.

When Gefen sold Duval Marine, he began looking around for something else to do – and it didn’t take long for the phone to ring with the governor of Louisiana asking for his help putting on boat show. The successful venture helped lead to the creation of International Productions, a company dedicated to staging and producing trade shows, including The Florida Huddle that annually showcased Florida’s tourism.

Gefen_05International Productions grew to be the largest organization of its kind, staging six to 10 international trade shows a year around the world. Gefen sold that business in 1982 to 3M. He was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010 from the University of Florida College of Health and Human Performance for his contributions to Florida tourism.

While Gefen still has an incredible head for business and a seemingly Midas-like touch with whatever he dabbles in, his heart and soul for the last few decades has been dedicated to his family (wife Lois, who passed away in 2012, three daughters, seven grandchildren and great-grandchildren) and his beloved city of Jacksonville.

He served for 10 years as a board member of the University of Florida Faculty Clinic. And his passion continues to help Jacksonville fulfill a healthcare initiative to become a regional leader in the industry, something that was started, he said, more than 25 years ago.

“Jacksonville has missed the boat on a lot of things,” said Gefen. “Disney’s first choice was the area where World Golf Village was today, but that didn’t happen. There used to be four major banks here, and they all left. We used to be an insurance hub, but those companies have all left. Twenty-five years ago, the Mayo Clinic came here, the University of Florida began their healthcare partnership here, Johnson & Johnson is headquartered here and we have the Proton Therapy center – healthcare is a great opportunity for us.”

When asked where he gets his motivation, Gefen names the most influential book of his life – My Years at GM by Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. And many more business tips and life lessons can be found in Gefen’s own book, Climb Another Mountain, Plant Another Tree. His second book, Still Climbing Mountains, Still Climbing Trees, just went to the publisher. Gefen plans on donating all proceeds to charity.

“I read My Years at GM six times – it showed me what it takes to succeed,” he said. “I was always able to visualize what was gonna happen. Then I just took everything one day at a time. And most things happened to become a big business.”Gefen_03

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