Shelby Modell, matriarch of the Modell sporting goods company who has also carved out her own path through philanthropy in health, mental health, education and the arts and political activism, died May 12 at her Manhattan home. She was 98 years old.
“She was a force of nature,” said her surviving son, Mitchell Modell, of South Beach, Fla., the former chief executive of the family-owned Modell’s, which closed all of its remaining stores, including 14 in Long Island, in 2020 and is not involved in its online iteration which is now managed by another company. “His whole life has been dedicated to helping people, starting with the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America.”
Shelby Modell was the co-founder of the National Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America and the founder of its Long Island chapter. She started the foundation after her son Michael was diagnosed with the disease as a teenager. He died in 2001 of complications from the disease. His family said they had raised “hundreds of millions of dollars for research, inherited from his son Michael”.
“She helped people get appointments with doctors,” for those with the disease, Mitchell Modell said. “She had access to the best doctors in the world.”
Shelby Modell was also a founding member of the American Digestive Disease Society and founder of the Jeffrey Modell Foundation for immunological research, according to her family. In addition, she was one of the founders of the Gilda Radner Foundation, “Gilda’s Club”, and served as secretary to its board of directors. She was also one of the founders of Hewlett House, a breast cancer resource center.
She was also president of the Long Island League of the Metropolitan Geriatric Center, president of the Five Towns Development Fund for Lincoln Center, founder of the Metropolitan Opera, and founding member of the Seawane Club at Hewlett Harbor.
Shelby was also politically active. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the Panama Canal Treaty Negotiating Committee. In 1979, New York City Mayor Abraham Beame appointed her commissioner to the New York City Youth Board. In 1987, Governor Mario Cuomo appointed her to the New York State Council on the Arts.
She also served on the National Health Council of Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center and was responsible for raising $150 million to build the medical center’s new psychiatric institute.
Raised in Brooklyn, home to Abe and Anna Zaldin, Shelby received her Bachelor of Arts from Brooklyn College and a Master of Arts from Columbia University.
In 1949, she married William D. Modell. They met at Glenmere Mansion in northern Orange County while on vacation. The family said Shelby was in distress after falling into Lake Glenmere and nearly drowning. They said William saved her. The couple had been married for 59 years when William Modell died in 2008.
A private funeral service for Shelby Modell is scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday at Riverside Memorial Chapel in Manhattan. The service will be streamed live to the public on Zoom.
In addition to her son, Modell’s survivors include a daughter, Leslie Modell of Manhattan; a daughter-in-law, Abby, of Manhattan; several grandchildren, a great-grandchild and nieces.
Modell’s family has requested that in lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America Research Fund in memory of Shelby Modell.