The late Kilian J. Schmitt, entrepreneur, public benefactor and founder of the Kilian J. and Caroline F. Schmitt Foundation, is affectionately described by those who knew him in many ways: A true gentleman who believed in personal sacrifice and giving for the greater good. A friendly, cordial and kind fellow with a wry sense of humor who loved hamburgers and Mercedes with equal enthusiasm. A brilliant investor who was also modest, unassuming, trustworthy and straightforward – a “very down to earth guy.”
From Germany to America: Borrowed Money and a Hopeful Heart
Kilian was born February 10, 1906 in the small Bavarian town of Hundsfeld, Germany, which was located near Würzbug, a medium-sized, culturally and historically rich city in central Germany. Situated on the banks of the River Main, Würzburg is surrounded by vineyards. The grandson of Hundsfeld’s mayor, Kilian grew up during a time of prosperity in Germany as his country bloomed into a strong industrial nation. Yet, Kilian also experienced life in a country preparing for, and attempting to recover from, the devastating effects of World War I. Inflation, shortages and painful restorations were all familiar to Kilian and is contemporaries.
Herman Fella, father of Foundation President Robert Fella, was a childhood friend of Kilian’s. Herman had already left Hundsfeld for America, and he encouraged Kilian, as well as his own brother, Leo (Foundation Director Leon Fella’s father), to join him. Herman loaned Kilian $220 to pay his passage. Kilian arrived in Rochester, New York on October 12, 1925. The young immigrants lived together or in the same area in the early years, and provided support and friendship to one another all their lives. As for their homeland, Kilian’s grandfather sold Hundsfeld’s Bad Lands to the Kaiser. The land was later acquired by Hitler, who demolished Hundsfeld to build an expanded army training camp.
”He would always be very loyal to the people who helped him out.Bob FellaSchmitt Foundation Director
Learning the Language While Making a Living and a Life
Undaunted by the prospect of learning a new language, Kilian enrolled at Washington Junior High School to learn English. As he became more proficient, he attended night school at the Mechanics Institute, the precursor to today's Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), studying mechanical engineering and management, and graduating in 1933.
While he was a student, Kilian worked as a sausage maker at Rochester Packing Company and later in the tool and die industry. He was determined to pay off the loan Herman had given him and to build a life for himself in America.
An Idea Whose Time Had Come: Parking Lots
In 1931, in the midst of the Depression, a chance comment by a friend in real estate changed Kilian’s future. This friend talked of a newfangled notion-space in the city specifically designated for leaving a car while the driver worked, shopped or visited. The shrewd investor in Kilian envisioned the potential for this idea, perhaps recognizing that, after the Depression, the demand for automobiles and thus parking lots would grow.
Kilian’s first lot was a small one on Clinton Avenue North, opposite the Claridge Hotel. While building this new venture, he worked hard to earn a living, laboring at tool making full time at Bausch and Lomb Optical Company, and at a variety of part-time jobs, including raising chickens.
In 1939 he married the former Caroline Stock. Childless, Kilian and Caroline were devoted to one another for over 50 years, working as a team in both business and philanthropic pursuits. In fact, Caroline ran the parking lots while Kilian worked at his other jobs, doing everything from handling the business details to parking cars.
Once people began buying and driving cars again after World War II, Kilian returned to his parking lot business full time, by then known as United Schmitt Corporation. At one point, he owned nearly every key parking lot in Rochester. Kilian’s firm expanded into real estate development, ultimately merging quite profitably with Houston’s Allright auto Parks Company.
At this point, Kilian’s fortune was indeed made, and he began to share it with many other people.