Erwin P. Staller, a Long Island real estate developer and noted philanthropist of the arts, died Monday at his home. He was 97.
Staller, a native Long Islander who grew up in Hempstead, co-founded real estate development firm Staller Associates of Hauppauge with his father, Max. The company, started in the 1950s, went on to become one of the region’s earliest developers of shopping centers before later moving into industrial and office development.
“One thing my father loved was meeting with tenants,” said son Cary Staller, president of the fourth-generation family business. “He really had an affinity with many, many tenants. He enjoyed seeing their success and being part of that.”
Erwin Staller graduated from Hempstead High School. He went on to attend Allegheny College in Pennsylvania for one year before enlisting in the Army during World War II, serving in the Signal Corps in the South Pacific.
Following the war, Staller joined his father running the family’s fruit and produce wholesale business. After working with A&P, helping the grocery store chain identify the best locations for new stores, the pair went into the real estate development business.
Staller continued to work at the firm until 2017.
In business, the younger Staller said his father “was the nicest guy” and that he “was not your archetypical hard-nosed businessman who was only in it for the money,” he said. “He wanted to help people succeed and that gave him pleasure.”
A major focus of Staller’s life concerned his fundraising efforts in arts education, most notably his creation of an endowment for Stony Brook University’s Staller Center for the Arts.
In 1988, Staller — a Stony Brook Foundation trustee for more than 30 years — and his family donated $1.8 million to the school, its biggest donation at the time. The university went on to rename its Staller Center for the Arts in honor of Staller’s parents, Max and Mary Staller. His family has contributed more than $16 million to the university over the years.
“He was a lovely guy,” said James Simons, founder of East Setauket-based hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, who met Staller more than 30 years ago through their philanthropic work at Stony Brook. Simons said Staller was a “loyal member of the foundation board” for many years.
“The Staller Center was a great addition to the university,” he said. “It was a community resource … he clearly cared about the arts.”
Alan Inkles, longtime director of the Staller Center, said Staller’s generosity came at a time when large donations to public universities were not common.
The endowment he and his family created "opened the door up,” Inkles said. “Up until that time we were not doing a lot of big shows.”
Staller “just understood what we were about” and was a true fan of the arts, he said.
Aside from his philanthropy and love of the arts, Staller was a passionate photographer and scuba diver, even breaking the Guinness World Record as the oldest scuba diver in 2014.
In addition to his son Cary, Staller is survived by his wife of nearly 73 years, Pearl “Freddie” Staller, sons Eric and Jan, daughter Kim, and nine grandchildren. He was preceded in death by a daughter, Tina.
His family plans to hold a memorial service at the Staller Center in the future.