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Epilogue: Jeweler, artist, community leader Donald Silverberg

Donald Silverberg was known for his leadership and creativity.
Donald Silverberg was known for his leadership and creativity.
Published Nov. 18, 2016

REDINGTON BEACH — Donald Silverberg, who died at 87 Tuesday, is remembered as a creative businessman, trusted jeweler, co-founder of Menorah Manor, longtime supporter of St. Petersburg College and advocate for civil rights.

After the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, many St. Petersburg businesses still didn't treat black patrons as equal to whites. So Silverberg and his wife, Jane, regularly went out with four African-American friends, all with the mission of making businesses abide by the law.

"They would go early when the restaurants weren't crowded and they would ask to be seated and (the hostess) would say 'We can't seat you but you can sit at the bar,' " recalled Silverberg's daughter Terri Gross. The group would sit at the bar, but the bartender would serve only the Silverbergs. Don Silverberg would order five drinks himself and hand them directly to his black friends, Dr. Fred Alsup and wife Edith and Dr. Ralph Wimbish and wife Bette.

"Then Dr. Wimbish would explain the civil rights legislation and the manager would usually give in. We went to practically every restaurant in town doing that," said Silverberg's wife of 63 years, Jane. When theaters told the group of six they could sit only in the balcony, the friends refused and sat downstairs, again explaining this was the law of the land.

"Don wasn't aggressive in his actions, he was diplomatic," she recalled. "He could convince people that this was the right thing to do. They finally went along with it."

Don Silverberg often took the unexpected road. After graduating from Shorecrest Preparatory School he started college at Washington University in St. Louis. His parents wanted him to become a doctor.

But during a summer program at Harvard University he heard about Mexico College in Mexico City. He decided to finish his last two years of college there so he could see more of the world and learn Spanish.

"My dad said he first learned to be entrepreneurial when he and a friend started a fast food place in Mexico City," Gross said. The two young men bought a grill, found a spot on the roof of a building and between classes made and sold hamburgers and milk shakes, novelties in Mexico at the time.

After graduating, Silverberg joined the U.S. army, serving as a tank commander in occupied Germany. In 1953 he returned to St. Petersburg and married. He worked at his parents' jewelry store, Bromley's and as a broker on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. In 1968 Don and Jane Silverberg opened Silverberg Jewelry Co. in downtown St. Petersburg where Sundial stands today. They added four more stores in Port Richey, Clearwater, Sarasota and Tampa.

In 1982 the downtown location closed and a flagship store opened across from Tyrone Square Mall. Today just the Sarasota store remains and is owned by the Silverbergs' son Ed. Their other son, Tom, owns Jess Jewelers in Bradenton. The stores coexist amicably, Gross said.

Don and Jane Silverberg traveled the world finding distinctive pieces for their stores. They once sold a pre-Columbian gold nose piece to Nelson Rockefeller who put the artifact in his art collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

"(Don Silverberg) was an outstanding merchant. He had a very loyal following from clients who respected his integrity," said Ambassador Mel Sembler. He credited him and a handful of other leaders for starting Menorah Manner.

"We didn't have anything like that for a retirement and treatment facility. It doesn't just treat Jewish patients," he said. "It's been an amazing addition to the community."

After retiring in 1997, Silverberg again took a surprising road by taking up marble sculpting. A local instructor suggested he take his talent and passion to Pietrasanta in Northern Italy to study with masters and create with Carrara marble, which was mined nearby. He and Jane Silverberg spent five summers there and shipped back finished works. The abstract and human sculptures were given to family, sold at art shows and donated to nonprofit groups to use for fundraising.

About 18 months ago the strenuous marble sculpting became too difficult for Silverberg, so he took up clay. He completed his last work at the Azalea Recreation Center just six weeks ago.

"He was so proud of that piece," Gross said. "He wanted to continue with his art."

Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Katherine Snow Smith can be contacted at kssmith@tampabay.com. Follow @snowsmith.