Shelby Modell, matriarch of the Modell's sporting goods company who also forged her own path through philanthropy in the fields of health, mental health, education and the arts, and political activism, died on Thursday in her Manhattan home. She was 98.
“She was a force of nature," said her surviving son, Mitchell Modell, of South Beach, Florida, the former chief executive of Modell's Sporting Goods. The longtime family-run retailer closed all its remaining stores, including 14 on Long Island, in 2020 after filing for bankruptcy protection and is not involved with its online iteration, which is now run by another company. "Her whole life was dedicated to helping people, starting with the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America."
Shelby Modell was the co-founder of the National Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America and the founder of its Long Island chapter. She started the foundation after her son Michael was diagnosed with the illness in his teens. He died of complications of the disease in 2001. Her family said she raised "hundreds of millions of dollars for research, in the legacy of her son Michael."
She helped those suffering from the illness get doctor appointments, Mitchell Modell said. "She had access to the top doctors in the world."
Shelby Modell also was a founding member of the American Digestive Disease Society and a founder of the Jeffrey Modell Foundation for immunological research, her family said. In addition, she was a founder of the Gilda Radner Foundation, “Gilda’s Club,” and served as secretary on its board of trustees. She was also a founder of Hewlett House, a breast cancer resource center.
She served as president of the Long Island League of the Metropolitan Geriatric Center and chairman of the Five Towns Development Fund for Lincoln Center, and was a founding patron of the Metropolitan Opera and a founding member of the Seawane Club in Hewlett Harbor.
She also was politically active. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the negotiating committee of the Panama Canal Treaty. In 1987, Gov. Mario Cuomo appointed her to the New York State Council of the Arts.
She also served on the National Health Council of Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center and was responsible for raising $150 million to build the medical center's new psychiatric institute.
Raised in Brooklyn by parents Abe and Anna Zaldin, Shelby received her bachelor of arts from Brooklyn College and a master of arts from Columbia University.
In 1949, she married William D. Modell. They met while vacationing at Glenmere Mansion in upstate Orange County. The family said Shelby was in distress after falling into Glenmere Lake and nearly drowned, and William rescued her. The couple had been married for 59 years at the time of William Modell's death in 2008.
In addition to her son, Shelby Modell's survivors include a daughter, Leslie Modell of Manhattan; and several grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
A private funeral is scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday at Riverside Memorial Chapel in Manhattan. The service will be livestreamed to the public on Zoom.
Her family asked that in lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America Research Fund in memory of Shelby Modell.