For nearly 30 years, Bill Kahn performed his magic shows for organizations in Pinellas County and North Carolina. Every penny he earned went toward helping nonprofit organizations help those less fortunate. With his 90th birthday approaching on Sunday, Kahn has packed up his bag of tricks, but is still raising money for the needy by teaching aspiring magicians and encouraging people to donate to his favorite local charity, the St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen in Clearwater. "Everything I do has been as a volunteer," Kahn said. "In fact, I don't like to even handle the money. I ask people to send their donations directly to the organization."
His benevolence has paid off in huge ways for the soup kitchen, which estimates his contributions over the years in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Kahn has been performing as a magician since he was a teenager in New York and says his magic shows and his talent as a photographer helped him pay for his education in business administration at New York University.
He spent his career first as a photographer for the Army and later as a photographer to the stars. He took shots of many of the most famous celebrities of the '50s, '60s and '70s as a photographer for TV Guide magazine.
In fact, he says, Jackie Gleason first used his tagline, "And awaaay we go!" while clowning around during a photo shoot with Kahn.
He met his wife-to-be, Muriel, 87, when he was just a child and the two lived in the same apartment building in New York City. But it wasn't until they were in college at NYU that they started seeing each other and fell in love.
"We hated one another when we were young," Mrs. Kahn said with a smile. "I asked him to the prom and he turned me down!"
The Kahns have been married for 67 years and have two daughters and three grandsons. They also have a cat, named Timmy.
"I'll tell you, he is the light of my life," Kahn said of his 9-year-old feline.
When he retired and they moved to Clearwater in 1980, Kahn knew he wanted to spend his retirement years doing something to help others.
He discovered the need at the St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen and decided he wanted to help.
In addition to donating the proceeds from most of his local shows to the organization, he also helped persuade some well-known Pinellas County philanthropists to support the organization.
The walls of his home office are lined with awards for his generosity and letters of commendation from organizations he has helped. There are also letters from dignitaries, including former Govs. Jeb Bush and Lawton Chiles, U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis and even one from former President Bill Clinton.
But Kahn said the reason he donated his proceeds to charity had little to do with awards and recognition — it was all about helping other people.
"I always wanted to do the kind of magic that touches people's lives," he said. "That put me in a category apart from guys 10 times more talented than I am."
His efforts are appreciated.
"He has been a guardian angel to us," said Mary Lou Guthart, supervisor of the St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen. "He truly is one of the pillars of our organization."