Mort and Iris November’s surname graces a wing at the Cleveland Clinic, a research greenhouse at Case Western Reserve University Farm, a learning center at the East Cleveland Public Library, a lodge at the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, a pavilion and garden at the Center for Families and Children, a music room at the Bellefaire Jewish Children’s Bureau as well as a half-dozen charity programs.
But it’s not enough for the Novembers to give their money to help others: They are experts at convincing others to give, too — "accessories" to their own gifts. And that's why they are featured on Huffington Post's Greatest Person of the Day.
The Beachwood couple has — literally — written the book on what they call The Fine Art of Schnorring.
Mort and Iris aim to take the negative connotation from the Yiddish word for begging.
Schnorring (as defined in the Novembers' book): When you want something that another person may not want to give you, but you ask for it in such a way that the reluctant person ends up giving it to you, while thanking you, hugging you, and wanting to take you out to lunch.
“He is the greatest schnorrer in the entire world,” said Iris one morning in the couple’s two-bedroom apartment. “Tell her, honey.”
Mort, a self-described born salesman, takes great pride in his schnorring accomplishments: 17 cases of personal hygiene supplies from Procter & Gamble. From Beachwood jeweler Alson’s, a mezuzah, or a decorative parchment scroll of Hebrew verses, for the front door of a research greenhouse the couple built for Case Western. Enough Maypo oatmeal, straight from the manufacturer, to feed a bus full of children.
Once, a thank-you note to a Bon-Ton department store yielded a sizable gift card, which the Novembers put toward 25 rolling suitcases they gave to underprivileged children they sent on a free overnight trip.
Another time, the couple went to Wal-Mart to buy children’s sleeping bags for children in the same program. They got the price knocked down to a third of their original cost, and got Wal-Mart to throw in personalized tags.
The Novembers were not born into trust funds that support their philanthropic ways.
“We are not rich,” Iris insisted.
But what they’ve given -- they won't give totals, but the Clinic wing alone cost $1 million -- is more than their estate is worth. Iris said the two give very carefully — “more bang for our buck, Mort always says.”
“I think the impact of what our money has done far outweighs the amount of money we’ve given,” said Iris.
Iris is a Cleveland Heights native who grew up in a middle-class family and worked as a librarian — “my little bookie,” as Mort refers to her.
Mort was born and raised in East Cleveland. An Army vet, he brags that he holds the world record for shortest college career.
“One hour,” he said. “And then I figured, this is not for me. And I went out and started to sell to people, and that’s what I’ve done ever since.”
Mort sold household goods door-to-door for his uncle and then moved to Lincoln National Life Insurance. There, he sold in the top 1 percent, eventually making — and wisely investing — enough money to land in Beachwood with a home, two cars — “small cars,” he insisted — and a family.
His daughter, Debra Ann, who died at 24, is the inspiration and namesake for many of their projects.
Debra Ann loved children. The summer she was 12 or 13, said Mort, she invited the younger kids from their Beachwood neighborhood to her backyard for “day camp.”
“She would have games, and she would tell stories, and she would serve lunch. She did everything for them. And then she would take them back safe.”
At the end of the summer, many parents gave Debra Ann a few dollars to thank her. She used the money to buy gifts for the kids in her camp.
“That’s what she wanted to do with that money instead of spending it on herself,” Mort added, his voice thickening.
“And that’s been sort of the whole spirit behind this,” said Iris.
After their first spouses died, the couple met on a blind date arranged by Rabbi David Hachen. Ironically — and unbeknownst to Hachen — another mutual friend had already suggested the two meet. The couple finally agreed.
The two hit it off on the first date: Iris recalls the dinner when she and Mort talked for an hour and a half before they even ordered their food.
Iris says their friends couldn’t have gotten it more right. “We both came from such tragedy,” she said. “The tragedies were so huge that our friends wanted to just repair our wounds. And we say now, we healed each other. We laughed. We just have never stopped laughing.”
They were married in 1982 and have lived their own dream since.
When he wanted to give her a gift, Mort passed up jewelry for a library in her name — full of irises, of course — at Ratner School in East Cleveland.
Their comfortable life together — the house, the cars, the vacations — was not enough for the couple, they said.
“We’re blessed that we can give back,” said Iris. “If you live long enough — if you get fortunate enough to be where we are today — the giving back is way more exciting than the two cars and the vacation home.”