On February 28, 1916, Texas businessman and philanthropist Morris Lasker died at age 76.
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Morris Lasker was born on February 19, 1840 to Daniel and Rebecca Lasker, in Lask, Prussia, today Poland. His older brother Eduard Lasker was a prominent politician who worked for German unification and was integral to the codification of German law, before breaking with Bismarck.
At age 16, Morris boarded a clipper ship for the United States. Alighting in Norfolk, Virginia, he was involved in several unsuccessful business ventures – in Georgia, New York and Florida -- before buying a horse and working his way over the course of several years throughout the South as a peddler.
Eventually, he took a job with the dry-goods firm of Baum and Sanger in Weatherford, Texas, west of the newly founded town of Dallas, apparently in 1860.
A short time later, the Civil War began, Texas seceded from the Union, and Morris Lasker joined the 2nd Texas Cavalry Regiment, fighting both in border wars against Native Americans and with the Confederacy.
After the war, Lasker settled in Galveston, on the southeastern coast of Texas, and was involved in building up a wholesale grocery company, establishing the Lasker Real Estate Company, and buying and running the Texas Star Mills, which was the first business in the state to adopt an eight-hour work day. (He would say, “I don’t deserve a decent living if the people who work for me don’t have a decent living.”) He also invested in construction of a railroad.
In 1876, he married Nettie Davis, from a Russian-German Jewish family from New York State. They had eight children, the most notable of them being Albert Lasker, one of the founders of the modern advertising industry in the United States (more about him below).
In 1893, a major recession hit the country, and Lasker’s real-estate holdings lost all their value, at which point he sent the family back to Germany for a year, until he had regained his financial standing
Lasker’s lone venture into politics came in 1895, when he succeeded a state senator who died midterm. But when his term was finished, Lasker chose not to run for reelection. Instead, he expanded his business interests, investing in banks and becoming president of the Galveston Cotton Exchange. He became a major grain buyer in the Texas Panhandle.
Morris Lasker was prominent in the philanthropic and volunteering spheres. He served on Galveston’s school board, and after the hurricane of 1900, was very involved in the reconstruction of the city center. He donated funds to a large number of orphanages and, shortly before his death, became interested in the National Farm School and Junior College for Jewish boys, many of them immigrants, in Pennsylvania. When he died, on this day in 1916, his son Albert gave the school $50,000 in his father’s memory.
Albert was the one child who remained in Texas with his father in 1893, when his real-estate holdings collapsed and he was left owing a British creditor a reported million dollars. Having witnessed the effect of the experience on Morris, after his father’s death, Albert also sold off all the family’s real-estate holdings, oil land near Galveston and nearly a quarter of downtown Houston. Later, this would be some of the most valuable real estate in the world.
It was at his father’s urging that Albert Lasker entered advertising. In 1898, he bought an agency in Chicago, Lord & Thomson; when he dissolved it in 1942, it was the world’s largest advertising firm. Albert was involved in Republican politics and in Jewish philanthropy, and in 1928, founded the Lasker Foundation for medical research, whose annual awards remain among the most prestigious in the scientific world.