Palm Beach County cultural icon Alexander Dreyfoos dies at 91

Alexander Wallace Dreyfoos Jr., a Palm Beach County cultural icon whose legacy includes a performance hall at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts and a high school named in his honor, died early Sunday. He was 91.

He died peacefully in his sleep at Lourdes Noreen McKeen Residence in West Palm Beach, former Kravis Center CEO Judith Mitchell, who was mentored by Mr. Dreyfoos, told the Daily News on Sunday.

Depending on which of his achievements was being highlighted, Mr. Dreyfoos was either an engineer with a passion for the arts, or an artist with a passion for engineering. In the end, he won accolades aplenty for both his photographs and his inventions.

Beginning in 1978, Mr. Dreyfoos spearheaded the fundraising campaign to build the Kravis Center, which opened in 1992, revolutionized Palm Beach County’s performing-arts landscape and helped revitalize downtown West Palm Beach. He served as chairman until 2007 and remained on the board until his death.

He also was instrumental in forming the Palm Beach County Council of the Arts (now Cultural Council for Palm Beach County), where he served as the first chairman.

Mr. Dreyfoos was born on March 22, 1932, at New York’s Presbyterian Hospital to Alexander and Martha Dreyfoos.

Mr. Dreyfoos at 5 months old with his dad Alex Sr., in 1932.

Mr. Dreyfoos, a former Palm Beach resident who more recently lived in West Palm Beach, grew up surrounded by music and beautiful pictures of beautiful people. His mother was a professional cello player, while Alex Sr. was a photographer who focused on the arts.

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Alex Sr.'s studio, Apeda (Art Photography Etchings Drawings and Architecture) Studio was located in the middle of New York’s theater district, where many of his clients worked.

But he wasn’t content with only taking photographs.

“Dad was a bit of an inventor,” Mr. Dreyfoos told The Palm Beach Post in 2019. “He came up with several machines — one of which speeded up the printing process and allowed him to make inexpensive pictures for an artist to go give to their fans.”

Alex Sr.’s partner secured a contract for their company with MGM, and it was a development that gave young Alex a better-than-average life in the 1930s. “Relative to other contemporaries, I had a rather enjoyable life,” Mr. Dreyfoos said.

Alexander W. Dreyfoos at his home in West Palm Beach Jan. 14, 2019. Mr. Dreyfoos died early Sunday in his sleep.

The family moved from New York City when his dad bought a foreclosed house in New Rochelle during the Depression, and there Alex Sr. built a workshop "which played a big role in my education,” Dreyfoos said.

“If there was anything I ever said I was interested in, soon there’d be a kit,” and the workshop was where the latest model would take shape.

Pearl Harbor got him interested in model airplanes, and that passion lasted his whole life.

“Thanks to Dad I became pretty handy. I built a darkroom, model airplanes.”

Mr. Dreyfoos with a Kodak Brownie Reflex camera circa 1940.

Dreyfoos' mother went to a small music school after high school, but Alex Sr. never went to college. However he had an obsession with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which he thought was the college of choice.

Mr. Dreyfoos recalled the family having company over and his dad telling them, “Alex (then 5) is going to MIT.”

Young Alex so absorbed what had been drummed into him by his dad, that he never gave thought to any other college. But would he realize his Dad’s dream?

“I did well in school but not super, because I had too many other interests,” he said. Then in about the 10th or 11th grade at New Rochelle High School, he met with a college adviser.

The exchange went something like this:

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Adviser: “What are your aspirations”

Alex Jr: “I’m going to MIT.”

Adviser: (Took one look at his grades and said) “No, you’re not.”

This was a wakeup call, “so I started paying attention,” in school, Mr. Dreyfoos said in 2019.

He was accepted to MIT and after graduation in 1954, Mr. Dreyfoos, who had enlisted in the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps while in college, was sent to Germany where his passion for photography would blossom.

Mr. Dreyfoos with his jeep in Germany in 1956.

After serving in military, Mr. Dreyfoos earned a master's in business administration from Harvard Business School in 1958 under the GI bill.

Mr. Dreyfoos founded Photo Electronics Corp. in 1963, with the late George W. Mergens, and they developed their groundbreaking Video Color Negative Analyzer (VCNA) in Dreyfoos’ Port Chester, New York., basement, then set up a factory in a former church in Connecticut. The VCNA makes it easier to develop high-quality prints of a picture.

The VCNA was marketed worldwide by Eastman Kodak Co., and in 1971 a motion-picture version of the technology earned Mr. Dreyfoos and Mr. Mergens an Academy Award. Mr. Dreyfoos attended the event, but told The Post in 1999 that it was quick: The actual award presentation — he got a plaque, not a statuette — came during a quick commercial break, leaving little time for lengthy thank-yous.

The VCNA is in the permanent collection at the American History Museum of the Smithsonian Institution.

Mr. Dreyfoos was chairman and owner of The Dreyfoos Group, a private capital management firm, which grew out of the success of Photo Electronics Corp.

He held 10 U.S. and numerous foreign patents in the fields of electronics and photography, according to an obituary prepared by the family, and was made a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004.

During his retirement, Mr. Dreyfoos pursued two of his passions — travel and photography. He sailed the world aboard Silver Cloud, the yacht he helped to design with an innovative stabilizing system so his wife, Renate, would not get seasick.

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Mr. Dreyfoos' love of flying (he earned a pilot's license in 1960), fishing, scuba diving, sailing and swimming prompted him to move with his family to Palm Beach County in 1969. At one time, he owned WPEC-Channel 12, buying it from John D. MacArthur. Appalled by the racism he saw here, he hired the late AnEta Sewell-Spence as the first Black anchor in the Palm Beach County/Treasure Coast area.

Kravis board chair Sherry Barrat called Mr. Dreyfoos her hero. Noting that he had an enormous impact on the quality of life in Palm Beach County, Barrat said he "was a builder — of community and of relationships. He practiced inclusiveness before that term became popular. Alex brought various communities together to build the Kravis Center, and kept expanding that circle to reach so many others in Palm Beach County.

"He created the Cultural Council to nurture and grow our cultural institutions. Alex was an innovator — he was always on the lookout for new technologies to improve the human condition. Most of all, Alex was a loyal and trusted friend to so many of us. He gave me some great advice over the years."

Dave Lawrence, president and CEO of the Cultural Council for Palm Beach County, said Sunday that Mr. Dreyfoos was "a visionary."

"He was profoundly creative, forward-thinking and saw the value and potential of supporting arts and culture in Palm Beach County," Lawrence said in a prepared statement. "In 1978, he created The Cultural Council for Palm Beach County (then called the Palm Beach County Council of the Arts) with a goal of creating a calendar of local arts events that he could provide to prospective employees of his growing electronics company.

“Since its founding 45 years ago, the Cultural Council’s efforts helped pave the way for the Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, voter approval of the Tourist Development Tax Campaign for the Arts and passage of a $50 million bond issue for cultural and recreational facilities," he said.

"All of this would never have happened without Mr. Dreyfoos. We are so thankful to him for the extraordinary support he’s given to arts and culture in Palm Beach County through the years," Lawrence said.

Mr. Dreyfoos' philanthropy extended to the sciences as well as the arts. He gave $1 million to the Max Planck Florida Institute to fund research into Alzheimer's, a disease that Mr. Dreyfoos had been diagnosed with. He also gave $1 million to Massachusetts General Hospital for Alzheimer’s research.

In 2004, he gave $1 million to the Scripps Florida Research Institute. In 1998, he donated $15 million to MIT to build a computer sciences complex. “It was a give-back, a thank-you,” Mr. Dreyfoos said in 2014.

He was a Life Member Emeritus of the M.I.T. Corp., having served on the Visiting Committees for Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, and the Media Laboratory/Media Arts and Sciences where he served as chairman for nearly a decade. The Alexander W. Dreyfoos Building at MIT was dedicated in May 2004, and he proudly funded the Alexander W. Dreyfoos, Jr. Professorship, the family obituary said.

His $1 million gift — one of the largest private contributions ever made to a public school in Florida — in 1997 to the Palm Beach School of the Arts, an arts magnet that was the former Twin Lakes High School, transformed it into the Dreyfoos School of the Arts. In 2020, Mr. Dreyfoos and his wife established a $1 million nursing scholarship at the school in honor of friends Ray and Naomi Wess.

Chris Snyder, who became CEO of the Dreyfoos School of the Arts Foundation about two years ago, said it's hard to put into words everything Mr. Dreyfoos did for Palm Beach County. Although Snyder had limited interactions with Mr. Dreyfoos personally, he said it was clear the philanthropist was selfless and generous.

"What stood out for me was his zest and love for education," Snyder said. "Alex just came from a genuine place, and he did it all while saying 'please' and 'thank you.' He's the last of a dying breed."

William Meyer, former board chair of the Kravis Center, told the Daily News that Mr. Dreyfoos' contribution to the culture of Palm Beach County was decisive.

"No one has had a greater impact on Palm Beach County than Alex Dreyfoos," Meyer said. "He changed the cultural landscape in a way that benefits today’s residents as well as future generations. The Kravis Center, the Dreyfoos School of the Arts, the Cultural Council, TV’s Channel 12-WPEC all exist because of Alex Dreyfoos.

"He is well-deserving of the recognition he has received and we will miss his vision and leadership."

The current CEO of the Kravis Center, Diane Quinn, expressed sympathy Sunday for Mr. Dreyfoos' widow, Renate, and his family.

"Alex will always be remembered as a visionary and a man who understood deeply the impact that the arts would have on the development and attraction of people and business to Palm Beach County," Quinn said in a prepared statement. "We are so fortunate to have had him in our lives, and his legacy lives on in all that he touched. It was an honor to have him as our founder and guide for the Kravis Center — he was truly a great man."

Mr. Dreyfoos served on the board of trustees for the Scripps Research Institute, Max Planck Florida Institute, and the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum as well as the board of FPL Group for seven years until reaching the age for mandatory retirement.

He also served as a governor-appointee to the Florida Council of 100 and was a founding member, director, and former chairman of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County. He was a founding member of The International SeaKeepers Society; and was a member of the Chief Executives Organization and the World Presidents’ Organization.

Mr. Dreyfoos was a member of New York Yacht Club and the Sailfish Club of Florida, the First Unitarian Church of Palm Beach County and The National Society, Sons of the American Revolution.

He is survived by his wife, Renate; daughter Catherine Dreyfoos Carter and son Robert Dreyfoos (Julie); grandchildren Michael Aron Carter (Morgan), Michelle Carter Fenimore (Brian), Travis Dreyfoos (Natalie) and Aron Dreyfoos (Lauren); and great-grandchildren Allison Fenimore, Grayson Carter and Landon Carter.

In lieu of floral tributes, the family is asking that donations be made in Mr. Dreyfoos' name to the Kravis Center or Dreyfoos School of the Arts, Mitchell said. Details of a celebration of life event will come later, she said.

Palm Beach Post staffers Greg Stepanich and Kimberly Miller contributed to this story.

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Daily News: Palm Beach County cultural icon Alexander Dreyfoos has died at 91