Ridgefield notables: Henry Leir, visionary philanthropist

A captain of industry whose writing was once likened to Jules Verne’s, Henry Leir is remembered as a philanthropist who gave away millions to universities, hospitals and other global organizations. He and his wife established a retreat house at their Ridgefield estate that hosts conferences on humanitarian, scientific and health-related subjects.

Leir was born Heinrich Hans Leipziger in 1900 in Prussia. His father died when he was 11, forcing him to help support the family of eight at an early age. As a teenager, he began working for a German steel company and eventually rose to leadership positions.

In 1933, as Hitler came to power, he and his wife, Erna, fled Germany and settled in Luxembourg, where he established his first company. He was always grateful to Luxembourg because the primarily Catholic nation had welcomed the two Jewish refugees. After World War II, he contributed millions to rebuilding the country.

While in Luxembourg, Leir wrote a utopian science fiction novel, “La Grande Compagnie de Colonisation,” which promoted world peace and was his only effort at writing.

In 1938, the Leirs moved to the U.S. where he adopted the new name, Henry Leir, and founded Continental Ore Corporation. The company became a major international trader in ores, minerals, alloy, and carbon products, and had offices in Luxembourg, London, Paris, Tokyo, Mexico City and Dusseldorf.

Leir sold Continental Ore in 1966 for $40 million in stock ($300-million in 2019), but continued being active in the industry. At 98, he would still work at his office in New York City.

After he sold Continental Ore, Leir focused much of his energy on philanthropy, especially on helping hospitals, universities and underprivileged children here and abroad. Leir chairs at universities and hospitals in medical research were created for humanitarian studies on relief of poverty, famine, and international trade and development.

To distribute their money, he and his wife set up three foundations — The Henry J. and Erna D. Leir Foundation, Inc. of Luxembourg, The Ridgefield Foundation, Inc. and The Leir Foundation, Inc.

Two of their largest local grants were $500,000 to the Aldrich Art Museum and $1-million to Ability Beyond, both in 1996.

Around 1952 he and Erna bought a 33-acre estate on Branchville Road that he would later leave to one of the charitable foundations, now formally called the Leir Retreat Center, which hosts conferences on such subjects as substance abuse, Lyme disease, human rights, assessment and treatment of suicide risk, mental health, dementia, and child abuse.

Erna Leir died in 1996 and Henry, two years later.