Walter J. Scherr likes to kick the tires of an organization before he becomes a donor.
The 88-year-old Queens native and retired businessman founded Visual Sciences Inc., one of the first publicly traded fax companies. Over his 60 years of buying and selling businesses, Mr. Scherr says that he likes to evaluate a company by examining the balance sheet, profit-and-loss statements and the intellectual property of an organization.
This is an approach Mr. Scherr took about a decade ago when he became a donor to the Center for Discovery, a provider of education and residential services for children and adults with autism and other medical complexities in Harris, N.Y.
Over the last decade, Mr. Scherr has given some $500,000 to the charity for staff scholarships. His four children have made a $1 million gift to create the Walter & Vera Scherr Learning Lab, so named for their father and late mother. Mr. Scherr has pledged to raise another $900,000 for the lab before his 90th birthday. The $1.9 million will be announced Tuesday night during the Center for Discovery’s annual gala in New York.
The learning lab will allow staff members to continue their advanced education and share their expertise with others who care for people with severe and complex disabilities, medical frailties and individuals with autism spectrum disorders.
Mr. Scherr, who now lives in Sarasota, Fla., was introduced to the charity by chance during a casual conversation with his surgeon, George J. Todd, an expert in carotid artery surgery and chairman of the department of surgery at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital Center.
Dr. Todd asked Mr. Scherr what interested him philanthropically and Mr. Scherr shared his interest in helping co-workers who, as a result of a birth accident, had suffered from cerebral palsy. Over the years, he’d seen the challenges his co-workers had faced and, as a result, set up a fund for them upon his retirement.
It was a moment of kismet for the two men as Dr. Todd shared with Mr. Scherr his involvement in the Center for Discovery. Dr. Todd asked Mr. Scherr to visit, as a personal favor, to evaluate the center on a business level. During Mr. Scherr’s visit, he asked to see the organization’s books, examine the place on his own and write an evaluation of what he saw. Mr. Scherr was impressed and made his first gift in 2004.
“There’s nothing like seeing the operation itself,” says Mr. Scherr. “I tell other people, ‘I can’t guarantee anything after you go up and see the Center for Discovery, but I can tell you for the next week you won’t sweat the small stuff.’”
It was more than just the financials and the dedicated staff that persuaded Mr. Scherr in his giving to the Center for Discovery. He considers himself extremely lucky in life. He survived the Depression and tuberculosis, which was discovered during a routine Army medical evaluation to serve in World War II.
“The gospel says take care of my children and I’ll take care of you,” cites Mr. Scherr, who believes that the Center for Discovery staff members all have a place “upstairs.” Then, Mr. Scherr says with a laugh, “I’m hoping I can come in on their coattails.”
Write to Melanie Grayce West at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared May 14, 2013, on page A21 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Caring for the Caretakers: A Gift to Fund Advanced Education.