Property for a purpose: Using wealth to transform mental health care
Two moments define how a World War II veteran who once sold pots and pans in Baltimore became a mental health care innovator and honored his son.
Sylvan Herman has a salesman’s drive and strong work ethic in his genes.
He still remembers his first day on the job at his dad’s Baltimore clothing store. He was 12 years old and soon faced one of the hulking workers from the city’s shipyards — typical of the shipbuilders, autoworkers, and other manufacturing workers who accounted for most of the store’s business.
“A big guy comes in, 6’2”, 6’3”, and I walk up to him and I say, ‘Can I help you?’ and he says, ‘I need a pair of pants,’” said Herman, 91. “I took him to the pants department and sold him a pair of pants.
“My father is at the cash register watching the money, and all this. I was feeling pretty good about myself. After the guy left, my dad asked, ‘Why didn’t you sell him a shirt?’ I learned a lot.”
Returning from his duty as a sailor in World War II, Herman would draw on the tough love and lessons from his childhood often when work was scarce and jobs were few.
Herman put himself through Syracuse University on the GI Bill. At 24, he tried supporting his divorced mom and family by selling pots and pans.
“I got the job because I had a car — a Plymouth sedan,” Herman said. “They gave me a stack of cards and said, ‘Now go and knock on these doors and sell our merchandise.’ They gave me the worst route one can have — a lot of rural addresses — and they fired me because they thought I wasn’t selling enough.”
Herman turned to auto sales and soon hit his stride. He did well, even buying a dozen cars or so and running his own lot after his initial success. An auto finance company that he worked with noticed his work ethic and results, and asked him to manage their car lots in Washington, D.C.
So off he went, and that’s where his life’s first big moment came.
A real estate broker he knew told him about a lot for sale at the corner of 12th and K streets in the district. It belonged to a children’s hospital that had been given the land but had no use for it.
“I said, ‘OK, I will buy it,’” Herman said. “It was a corner property. I paid $10,000 for it, and five years later sold it for $400,000. That put me in the real estate business. I was no longer a car salesman but a real estate developer.”
Developing and managing commercial space
Today, S.C. Herman & Associates has more than 100 employees and manages a real estate portfolio in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Delaware, consisting of seven large downtown offices and an industrial warehouse with a combined 2 million square feet of rentable space.
Most of that portfolio is in downtown Washington, D.C., near the Capitol and the White House, with a mix of tenants that includes government agencies, private corporations, nonprofits, and law firms.
The Washington, D.C., team of Wells Fargo Private Bank — Wells Fargo has been Herman’s primary personal and business bank since the 1980s — recently worked with Wells Fargo’s Commercial Banking team to assemble a $60 million loan to refinance his company’s building at 1125 15th St. NW.
“We were able to analyze the entire situation and structure a three-year loan which would give them enough time to reposition the property in the market after a vacancy, and also were successful in lowering the interest rate more in line with the market, which is estimated at least $2 million — money used to make updates to the portfolio to attract other nongovernmental tenants,” said Ken Hostetter, the Wells Fargo private banker serving Herman and S.C. Herman & Associates.
Herman’s wealth from his commercial real estate success also figured in another watershed moment of his life.
‘I wouldn’t wish on anybody what we went through’
“My son John was a schizophrenic,” Herman said. “We discovered it when he was in his first year of college. I worked with my son from the time he was 19 until he died in 2015 at age 39.
“I wouldn’t wish on anybody what we went through in those 20 years. He was in and out of hospitals, jail, drugs. It was terrible,” he said.
Herman created a foundation and tried to fund research for new drugs. He soon realized people like John needed something else.
“A friend of mine who was the head of psychiatry for a hospital asked me one day, ‘Why don’t you get into the rehabilitation field instead of trying to donate money looking for a cure? I’ll help you find a location for you and help you get started.’
So I took him up on his offer, and that’s what I did.”
Innovative treatment becomes a model for others
In 2011, when his son was 35, Herman opened ClearView Communities, a mental health treatment program in Frederick, Maryland. The nonprofit focuses on community integration instead of isolation, and functional and vocational recovery instead of medication and hospitalization. Its results inspired Mayo Clinic to create a similar program on its campus in Rochester, Minnesota.
Mayo’s John E. Herman Home and Treatment Center in Rochester, Minnesota — named in memory of Herman’s son — opens this fall. The Sylvan C. Herman Foundation paid for its construction. Both programs are designed to address the growing problem of mental illness in the United States.
According to the National Institutes of Health, about 4.2 percent of all U.S. adults have serious mental illnesses — about 10.4 million adults 18 and older, or nearly 1 in 25 adults.
With five residential houses in downtown Frederick for those able to live more independently, and a 2.5-acre campus nearby with group homes and clinicians’ offices, all ClearView residents battling serious mental illnesses have supervised care and 24/7 access to clinicians and therapists all under the same roof.
‘I am back on my feet’
William St. Clair was once a ClearView resident.
He arrived on the campus in 2015, after five years of struggling with schizophrenia and depression. A doctor who had treated him for seizures caused by one of many failed treatments suggested he try ClearView.
St. Clair stayed at ClearView for 18 months. He saw his wife, Kristen, on weekends.
“Every day I made progress, and they gave me tools and strategies that worked,” St. Clair said. “I had events and activities and things to do every day, along with my therapy, and had interaction with other people. I wasn’t isolated.”
About 71 percent of ClearView Communities residents work while undergoing treatment. A ClearView employment specialist found St. Clair a job at the local YMCA, helping get snacks for kids and doing other tasks at a summer camp. The specialist also helped him enroll in a class at the local community college.
“I took Introduction to Psychology,” St. Clair said. “As I recovered, being able to do food shopping and cooking dinner helped me get back into the rhythm of being a healthy person.”
St. Clair is now back home in Springfield, Pennsylvania, working as an account manager for a property and casualty insurance provider, and the proud parent of his first child, William St. Clair VI, born March 18.
“I am back on my feet,” said St. Clair. His success illustrates results at ClearView, where the rate of re-hospitalization drops by one-third after participation in the program.
Herman visits ClearView communities regularly.
“Mr. Herman is the heartbeat of ClearView,” said Eric Levine, its executive director. “We provide humane, dignified, compassionate, and kind care for people struggling with mental illnesses. This is his passion.”
On a recent trip to ClearView’s campus, which has a fountain sculpture representing his son as a child feeding the birds he loved, Herman spotted a resident he’d seen before.
“How are you doing?” he asked.
“Better,” the young man smiled. “I’m doing better.”
Herman smiled back. “That’s good. That’s really good.”
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