May Gruber, 100; philanthropist marched in Occupy movement

May Gruber kept up with contemporary trends.
May Gruber kept up with contemporary trends.

In 1977, 65-year-old May Gruber ran the Bonne Bell 10-kilometer road race through Boston and Cambridge to support her marathon runner daughter’s bid for reelection to the Cambridge School Committee. Sara Mae Berman, who won the election, said her mother’s knee surgeon “was waiting for her at the finish line.’’

In 2011, at age 99, Mrs. Gruber carried a “99’’ sign in the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City highlighting the inequality of income between 99 percent of the population and the wealthiest 1 percent.

“Over the years, her roles have been mother, businesswoman, publisher, columnist, education advocate, co-founder of the League of Women Voters [in Manchester, N.H.], patron of the arts, world traveler, and until the past few years, a regular jogger,’’ Berman once said of her mother. “She doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer — just keeps her eye on her goals until she succeeds.’’


She was a champion of the underdog, supporting philanthropies in the arts and music as well as in health and education.

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“Mother saw good in the world and went out into it and tried to do positive things,’’ said her son, Ralph Sidore, of Bedford, N.H., treasurer of the Gruber Foundation, the source of her continuing philanthropy.

May Blum Sidore Gruber, once head of her family’s nationally known knitwear company, Pandora Industries Inc., in Manchester, who was honored for her philanthropic and civic contributions, died March 4 at her home in Goffstown, N.H., two days before her 101st birthday.

The cause of death was attributed to “physical deconditioning,’’ her daughter said, after she suffered a concussion in a fall at her New York City apartment in January.

Mrs. Gruber’s family started Pandora in the 1930s in New York City and moved it to Manchester in 1940. After her husband, Saul O. Sidore , died in 1964, she bought out other family members and ran the company until she sold it in 1983. In 1990, the Associated Press reported that Mrs. Gruber and trustees of Gruber Foundation had donated Pandora’s 140-year-old building to the City of Manchester.


In “Sweater Queen,’’ a film featuring Mrs. Gruber and her success in building Pandora Industries, made in 2007 and remade in a shorter form in 2011, she describes what it was like to be a businesswoman, a rarity in her day.

“There was no time for griping,’’ she said. “No time for crying over spilt milk. So that was the way we [at Pandora] grew to our $40 million volume, no small shakes.”

She worked hard for Pandora, Ralph said, recalling that during pregnancies in 1930 and 1940, when the company was still in New York City, his mother drove on weeklong trips hauling cases of clothing to sell.

“It was a physical struggle,’’ he said.

Her biggest skill, he said, “was to formulate and put into place long-range goals with intermediate bench marks” — but always with generous touches.


At a time when employee benefits were not the rule, he said, his parents provided profit sharing and retirement and medical benefits, and gave scholarships to their children.

Her largess lives on in the nonprofits her foundation continues to support.

In Manchester, Rona Zlokower, co-founder of Media Power Youth, said the foundation’s gift of seed money and its continued support help “empower youth to lead healthy, safe lives through the media.’’ Child Health Services, which works to improve the health of at-risk, low-income children in the Manchester area, also has foundation support.

Mrs. Gruber wrote two books about her business experiences. In “Skyhooks and Track Shoes,’’ about her life as a businesswoman, she advises: “The key to success is to fashion your hooks in the sky, the farthest you can possibly imagine. Then, put on your track shoes — jog, walk, climb — so you can go from where you stand to where you want to go.’’

In “Pandora’s Pride’’ she wrote about her family and the family business. She also wrote for local publications.

She was born in New York to Morris and Bertha (Greenberg) Blum. While living at home and going to school, she worked Saturdays at Bloomingdale’s for $5.

But perhaps showing her business instincts early on, she earned more in gin rummy games with her mother, said her son, Gene Sidore of Hollis, N.H.

She graduated from New York University at age 19 and married Sidore five months later.

“They started out with very little money,’’ Gene said. “Dad was an architectural draftsman for the city and with overtime, earned $125 a week. When they became engaged, they agreed to save $7.50 a week to furnish an apartment after they married.’’

With her father, who had been in the knitwear business, they started Pandora’s in New York.

After Sidore’s death, she married Samuel Gruber, a widower and employment agency owner, in 1967. “He opened up a wonderful world of art and music for me,’’ she said.

As Sidore had done, Gruber joined her in her philanthropies. They became art collectors and exhibited some of their purchases at Manchester’s Currier Gallery of Art.

“The eclectic choices ran from a Rembrandt etching to a pawky William Wiley watercolor,’’ the Globe reported in 1994.

The Grubers also brought music to Manchester.

“When they saw that Manchester needed a youth orchestra and a community music school, they made them possible,’’ said Mimi Bravar of Durham, N.H., a longtime friend. “May was a very thoughtful person who wanted to correct injustices and had a great deal of empathy. There was a quiet elegance about this woman with beautiful blue eyes and wavy hair.’’

Together, the Grubers traveled to far-flung places including New Guinea, Patagonia, and Sri Lanka. After Sam Gruber died in 1996, she continued traveling, inviting members of her family to come along.

Her generosity to others did not go unnoticed.

In 1993, she was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree for her “contributions to society’’ by the since-closed Notre Dame College in Manchester. In 2006, she was given the Susan B. Anthony Award for her contributions to women.

Mrs. Gruber hosted her 100th birthday party herself at St. Anselms’ College in Goffstown for 200 guests, whom she entertained with rapper F. Rodney Stokes, who composed a song in her honor.

“Rodney was a big hit,” said Berman. “The toddlers were dancing to his beat. The grown-ups were tapping their fingers on the tables.”

President Obama, New Hampshire governor John Lynch, and US Senator Jeanne Shaheen sent congratulatory letters to mark the occasion.

“May Gruber was a remarkable woman whose impact on New Hampshire will be felt for generations to come,’’ Shaheen told the New Hampshire Business Review after her death.

Her stepdaughter Mimi Abramovitz, of New York City, said Mrs. Gruber was “a very modern woman,” despite her age, and even during recent months, was “navigating city streets with her walker.’’

“She loved the same serious movies I did and the same New York restaurants,” Abramovitz said.

Mrs. Gruber’s daughter Micala Sidore of Northampton said her mother “remained her own person to the end.”

In addition to her two sons, two daughters, and stepdaughter, Mrs. Gruber leaves another stepdaughter, Lisa Gruber of Berkeley, Calif.; a brother, Theodore Blum of Citrus Heights, Calif.; 11 grandchildren; and 15 great-grandchildren. Her fifth child, Rebecca Spitz, died at 47.

Three celebration-of-life gatherings will be held: on Wednesday at 3 p.m at Temple Adath Yeshurun in Manchester, N.H; on May 2 at 2 p.m. in the Tap Room in New York University’s Torch Club in New York City; and on May 11 at 1 p.m. at the home of her grandson Michael Sidore in Oakland, Calif. A private service was held March 7.

Berman believes the answer to her mother’s longevity lay in her engagement with life.

“She was a voracious reader, [and] loved avant garde movies,” she said. “She kept interested in new things and kept meeting new friends.’’

Gloria Negri can be reached at