Her name is etched into the walls of Boston’s top cultural and medical institutions.
Ruth Shapiro, an elegant benefactor who with her husband Carl founded one of the most generous family foundations in the city’s history, died Sunday in Boston of complications of pneumonia.
Mrs. Shapiro, who was 95, and Carl, who is 99, made their first donation in 1950, when they gave $10 to Brandeis University in Waltham. It was all they could afford then, according to their family.
Manufacturing popular women’s apparel in a New Bedford factory eventually made them rich and the couple viewed sharing their wealth as a moral imperative. They founded the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Foundation in 1961.
“The kitchen table in our home became the family foundation’s boardroom,” daughter Rhonda Zinner said in a statement.
“That’s where my parents decided how and where they could make the greatest impact on the lives of others. My sisters and I were blessed to be raised by a father and mother whose values taught us the importance of doing all you can to try and make a difference.”
Born Ruth Gordon in Chelsea in 1917 to her parents George and Dorothy, Mrs. Shapiro graduated in 1937 from Wellesley College, where she majored in music. She later taught piano to underprivileged children at the Longy School of Music of Bard College in Cambridge, her family said.
She met Carl in the late 1930s on Nantasket Beach in Hull. They were married 73 years.
“She was elegant, intelligent, warm, and considerate, and of course she was very fond of the arts and music,” said Malcom Rogers, director of the Museum of Fine Arts.
Museumgoers now sip tea and espresso in the soaring, glass-enclosed Shapiro Family Courtyard, the dramatic link to the museum’s wing devoted to the Art of the Americas.
Mrs. Shapiro wanted visitors to the museum to find themselves in an exciting, memorable space, Rogers said. “They should think, Oh, this museum is beautiful.”
He expressed sadness over news of her death and recalled the last time he saw Mrs. Shapiro. It was at a nightclub this past winter in Palm Beach, Fla., where the Shapiros also lived. A band was playing a romantic World War II-era song. Mrs. Shapiro was frail but still dancing.
“We danced a few gentle steps to ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,’ ” Rogers said.
In addition to her husband and her daughter Rhonda, of Boston, Mrs. Shapiro leaves her brother, Roger Gordon of Boston; two other daughters, Ellen Jaffe of Weston and Linda Waintrup of Brookline; seven grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
Services will be held at noon Tuesday at Temple Israel in Boston. Burial will be in Newton Cemetery.
Mrs. Shapiro and her husband have been “committed to ameliorating the lives of the disabled and underserved in the Boston area,” according to their family.
At Boston Medical Center in the South End, hundreds pass through the Shapiro Ambulatory Care Center each day, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital hosts the Shapiro Cardiovascular Center. Other Shapiro family gifts have supported the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
In 2000, the Shapiros gave the largest gift in the history of Brandeis University. They donated $22 million for the campus center that bears their name.
Nancy K. Winship, Brandeis’s senior vice president for institutional advancement, recalled a warm relationship with Mrs. Shapiro.
“Ruth would call and she would remember your husband’s name and your children’s names,” said Winship. “We talked a lot. She never called to demand anything. She was very humble in that way. She really had this sincere, genuine fondness for people at all levels of an institution . . . She was always good to everyone.”
Mrs. Shapiro possessed an innate elegance, Winship said, recalling the pale pink suits she wore during campus visits and her black ball gowns for charity galas in Florida. “She was always stunning without trying hard,” Winship said.
The Shapiros’ later years were marred by swindler Bernard Madoff. Carl was an early investor with Madoff, who is serving a life sentence for the biggest Ponzi scheme in the nation’s history.
Victims of Madoff accused Carl Shapiro of profiting at the top of the Ponzi scheme. Mr. Shapiro insisted Madoff took him for $545 million, including millions the Shapiros invested with Madoff just before his elaborate fraud was exposed.
In 2010, Carl Shapiro paid $625 million to settle claims. The Shapiros admitted no wrongdoing and said they were shocked by the scandal.
The family’s foundation resumed grant-making last year and gave $13 million to benefit 71 organizations, according to the nonprofit’s annual report.
Among Mrs. Shapiro’s other favorite educational institutions was her alma mater, Wellesley, where her gifts support the arts and music. She endowed the director’s position at the Davis Museum at the college.
“We remember Ruth as a kind and generous woman, whose passion for Wellesley and whose commitment to giving back to her alma mater — and to all of the organizations in which she believed — inspires us all,” Wellesley College’s president, H. Kim Bottomly, said in a statement.J.M. Lawrence can be reached at email@example.com.