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Simon Fireman, pool toy mogul and philanthropist; at 86

By J.M. Lawrence
Globe Correspondent / September 15, 2011

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Simon C. Fireman, a pool-toys mogul from Quincy who paid a record $6 million in federal fines 15 years ago for using his workers to funnel illegal campaign contributions to GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole, spent the rest of his life giving away millions to hospitals, research facilities, and humanitarian causes.

Mr. Fireman, who died Saturday on his 86th birthday at a West Palm Beach Hospital of brain injuries sustained in a fall in January, became the toast of Palm Beach society and a benefactor to Boston area institutions including Beth Israel Hospital, Quincy Medical Center, and the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center.

During services Tuesday at a Chestnut Hill synagogue, his son Andrew told mourners his father once said: “Look to the good in people, Andy, because there is bad in all of us.’’

The illegal campaign finance scheme involved $120,000 in contributions: $69,000 funneled to Dole, $24,000 to the Republican National Committee, $21,000 to George Bush’s 1992 reelection campaign, and $6,000 to Joseph Kennedy II.

It was exposed when one of Mr. Fireman’s employees at Aqua Leisure, based in Avon, tipped the Kansas City Star.

Federal prosecutors quickly filed 71 felony counts against him and his executive assistant. They said Mr. Fireman, who was Dole’s campaign finance vice chairman, was angling for an ambassador’s post.

If Mr. Fireman sought to redeem himself from the scandal by giving away his money to charity, he never said as much, according to his family.

“My father had success in business, and he felt a desire to help those in need,’’ said his son Barry of Sharon. “He was very philanthropic and very concerned about people.’’

Mr. Fireman admitted to his crime in exchange for a six-month sentence under house arrest at his Marina Bay home in Quincy. But he contended that campaign finance caps on personal contributions violate First Amendment rights and later sued his defense lawyers at Dwyer & Collora for malpractice. The suit was dismissed.

In 1999, he wrote an unrepentant book called, “No Justice: The 6 Million Dollar Disaster.’’

“Dad was a complex man,’’ said Andrew, who lives in Bethesda. “Our father made many choices that were anathema to me. Some I will never understand. Regardless of my views, we shared a deep affection.’’

Hinting at his father’s demons during a eulogy at Congregation Mishkan Tefila, Andrew said, “You loved being important, but you sometimes lost sight of who you wanted to be important to. . . . You did not need all the fanfare to be important to those who love you.’’

Though Mr. Fireman founded and built Aqua Leisure into a world leader in recreational supplies, he sometimes lived in the shadow of his famous nephew Paul Fireman, the former chairman and chief executive officer of Reebok International Ltd. and one of the worlds’ richest people. Mr. Fireman was once accused in a Boston Herald gossip column of using his nephew’s identity to score restaurant reservations.

His first foray into politics began in the 1970s when President Carter appointed him to the US Domestic Trade Advisory Council.

Mr. Fireman, who was a Republican, later worked on Ronald Reagan’s inaugural. Reagan made him director of the Export-Import Bank in 1987, and Mr. Fireman was known for hosting $5,000-per-head Republican fund-raisers at his Hyannisport summer home.

At his funeral, Mr. Fireman was remembered for his movie star looks, his impeccable suits, and a driving ambition that continued into his 80s when he opened a gourmet Chinese restaurant called Coco Palm Beach. It recently closed after six years in business.

“Simon Fireman didn’t just enter a room; he filled it,’’ Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, the family’s rabbi from Potomac, Md., told mourners. “He was not someone you could easily forget.’’

The son of Abraham and Fanny Fireman, Simon Fireman was one of five children they raised in Boston. He outlived both of his brothers, Sam and Harry, and one of his sisters, Dorothy.

Drafted at age 17, he served in World War II in the Pacific in the 726th Amphibious Tractor Ranger Battalion and received a number of medals, according to his family. After the war, he led his family’s marine hardware and supply company for more than 20 years.

“He could be tough and demanding,’’ Rabbi Weinblatt said. “If he had been any less relenting, he wouldn’t be Simon Fireman. Underneath the veneer of toughness was a good man with a good heart.’’

Mr. Fireman enjoyed eating a “good corned beef sandwich by the TV,’’ playing golf, talking about baseball, and spending time with his grandchildren, his family said. He would call his granddaughter Carla in winter and urge her to ship Massachusetts snowballs to him in Florida.

His first marriage to Anita (Zonderman) ended in divorce after almost 40 years. They had three children.

Mr. Fireman married Norma (Yost) 20 years ago in a ceremony on Cape Cod. An elegant couple, their photos filled Palm Beach society columns. They supported arts organizations, and Mr. Fireman served as chairman of several charity balls, including the Red Cross Ball in 2005. He also was international honorary chairman of the Rabbinical College of America and Easter Seals of South Florida.

His friend Dick Robinson, a fellow Palm Beach charity supporter and a founder of the Connecticut School of Broadcasting, recalled the American Cancer Society Gala at the Breakers Palm Beach in 2001 when Mr. Fireman surprised the crowd by matching the $1 million raised that night.

The applause was “thunderous,’’ Robinson said. “A million dollar gift, just because Simon C. Fireman was touched.’’

In addition to his sons, Mr. Fireman leaves his sister, Libby Brodney of Lake Worth, Fla.; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Burial was in Mishkan Tefila Memorial Park in West Roxbury.