Philanthropy: A Fruitful Friendship

David Bernstein and Morris Offit have shared a lifelong connection — and a passion for philanthropy

Published in Hopkins Medicine - Spring/Summer 2021

Long-lived friendships are special, a connection with someone who knew you back when you hardly knew anything. But it’s the rare friendship that starts in childhood and extends throughout both college and adulthood. And an even rarer friendship that leaves a visible trail of benefits for the people whose paths you crossed over time.

David Bernstein (A&S ’57) credits Morris Offit (A&S ’57) with sparking his long-lasting involvement with Johns Hopkins after graduation.

“Truthfully, most of the years after I left Hopkins were devoted to my business career and I didn’t have a lot of activity with Hopkins, but Morris did,” Bernstein recalls. “And during the 1990s he brought me back and asked me to become a trustee.”

Co-founder and former chairman of Duty Free International, a publicly traded company on the New York Stock exchange, and former president of Diplomatic Duty Free Shops, Bernstein was hesitant at first, lacking experience as trustee of a university. But Offit, founder of Offitbank in New York City and CEO of Offit Hall Capital Management, and then chairman of the board of trustees of Johns Hopkins University, was persuasive. “It was one of the great decisions of my life because Hopkins has given so much back to me,” Bernstein says.

Bernstein and Offit first met when they were around 12 or 13, spending time together when their parents visited each other in Baltimore. But their friendship really took off in college at Johns Hopkins University, when they both joined the Phi Sigma Delta fraternity freshman year.

“Our social life and academic life were entwined for those four years, so we had a lot of time together, a lot of good times together,” Bernstein says. And though their classes only rarely overlapped — Bernstein was a political science major, while Offit studied business — the two built a connection around the day-to-day of university life. “Sometimes we would double-date, sometimes we would study in the library and then go out to get something to eat late at night — all those things that bring you together when at college. We had a lot of fun kidding around together.”

In fact, Offit would eventually marry a childhood neighbor of Bernstein’s. “His wife grew up across the street from me. She’s a lovely person and obviously also a good friend.”

Together the friends’ involvement with Johns Hopkins led to the Bernstein-Offit Building in Washington, D.C., and the Morris W. Offit Chair in International Finance and the David H. Bernstein Professorship in Political Science in 1989. Then Offit asked Bernstein to serve on the Johns Hopkins Medical Board, a position he took on in 1996. “He thought it would be beneficial to integrate the two boards more to get more cooperation and understanding between [them],” Bernstein says. “From then on, I became very invested in Johns Hopkins Medicine.”

Bernstein had previously been a board chairman of Baltimore’s Sinai Hospital, but the scale and breadth of Hopkins were new to him. “Hopkins is the best in the world and the people were an inspiration on how they did the job and contributed to society, and I was really honored to be a part of that,” he says.

He would eventually serve as well on the Johns Hopkins Medicine International Board for about eight years, a favorite project that combined his experience in international trade and business until his retirement from the board in 2019. He is currently an emeritus trustee of the Johns Hopkins Medical Board and the Johns Hopkins University Board, and on the advisory council for the School of Advanced International Studies.

Today Bernstein and Offit remain good friends, speaking frequently, though Bernstein lives in Baltimore and Offit in New York. And the pair keep an annual tradition of honoring another Baltimore institution. “He’s the biggest Orioles fan in the world, and I’m part of the ownership group,” says Bernstein, “so he comes down to opening day with me each year.”