May 12, 1926 – June 18, 2019
Sam Zemsky never owned a home in Buffalo. But his 1969 purchase of a meat processing plant on Perry Street, later Russer Foods, changed the face of the city.
That purchase "was a very gutsy move," said his son Howard Zemsky, the chairman and former CEO of Empire State Development Corp. "He had no real experience in the processing business, this was all new, and it was a very big investment for the company."
Mr. Zemsky, 93, died Tuesday in his home in Stuart, Fla., after a period of declining health.
Three decades after Mr. Zemsky started "the Buffalo shuffle," traveling to his Buffalo plant for the work week and home every weekend, his son started the redevelopment of the Larkin Historic District, known as Larkinville, a few blocks north of the former Russer plant.
"That was not a coincidence," said Howard Zemsky, who recalled looking at the Larkin at Exchange building for years from his office at Russer Foods.
Mr. Zemsky was born in Brooklyn, the third child of Eastern European immigrants Harry Zemsky and Clara Feigenbaum Zemsky. He graduated from high school in Brooklyn while working with his father in "H. Zemsky and Sons," a distributor of dairy products.
He served as a U.S. Navy radar instructor during World War II.
After being honorably discharged, Mr. Zemsky returned to the company, working with his sisters, Sylvia and Ruth. "The family business was in need of the next generation," said Howard Zemsky. Mr. Zemsky's formal education ended there, but he was well read, his son said.
Mr. Zemsky married Shirley Kushner in Brooklyn on Feb. 19, 1949.
As Zee Best Brand, the company moved into meat distribution. But Mr. Zemsky realized that he had to own a processing plant if he wanted to control product quality, his son said.
The search for a meat processing company led him to Buffalo, where Mr. Zemsky's Zemco Industries bought the Perry Street plant in 1969 from Swift Packing. In 1970, he acquired the Russer name from Russer Meats in Rochester.
"In business, he had a very clear philosophical North Star," said Howard Zemsky. "This business was going to be based on producing premium quality products and providing premium quality service with fabulous relationships with his customers and his associates, period. There was never any interest in cutting corners or compromising."
Russer Foods grew steadily, employing about 500 people by the end of the 1990s. In 1999, the plant was purchased by IBP Corp., which continued operations for some 15 years.
Mr. Zemsky was a devoted father, avidly supporting his children's interests. Howard Zemsky chuckled when he recalled that his father installed and equipped a large laboratory in their basement to encourage his brother's interest in chemistry.
When Howard Zemsky began to play tennis, his father built a court in the backyard of their modest home. And he was overjoyed when his son finally beat him. He "took the greatest satisfaction" in the success of his children, said Howard Zemsky.
His father was "very understated in his way, a private person, but he could be very social," said Howard Zemsky. "He wasn't big on small talk, but he was a quick study of people."
Mr. and Mrs. Zemsky were active sponsors of the "Great TV Auction" in support of WNED-TV. They also supported Temple Beth Zion, the Weinberg Campus, Elmwood Franklin School, the Chautauqua Institution, Roswell Park and the Foundation for Jewish Philanthropies.
In 1998, Mr. and Mrs. Zemsky received the Community Leadership Award from the Foundation for Jewish Philanthropies in Buffalo.
"They were charitable by instinct," said Howard Zemsky's wife, Leslie. "They had a natural philanthropic bent, but they also were very appreciative of what the employees at Russer and that business had done for our family. They were also proud of the fact that Howard and our family had such deep roots in Buffalo, to the point that they have chosen to be buried at Forest Lawn."
"He was the best," Howard Zemsky said. "He made all the difference to me and for me."
The Zemskys owned a condo at Chautauqua Institution for about a decade before Mrs. Zemsky died on May 8, 2011, after 62 years of marriage.
Besides his son Howard, survivors include another son, Michael Zemsky; a daughter, Randi Zemsky; and four grandchildren.
A service will be offered at 11 a.m. Friday, June 28 in Temple Beth Zion, 805 Delaware Ave.