In life, Harry Weinberg was an abrasive and ruthless businessman often accused of letting downtown Baltimore go to seed. In death, his $1 billion legacy will go toward improving the lives of the poor.

When Weinberg died in Honolulu earlier this month at age 82 after an eight-year battle with bone cancer, the real estate magnate left an estimated $900 million to $1 billion to the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.Overnight, the largely anonymous foundation started in 1957 was transformed into the nation's 12th-largest private foundation - one to be solely devoted to helping the poor. Half the money will go to the poor in Baltimore.

"What did John D. MacArthur, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and now Harry Weinberg have in common?" asked Honolulu businessman John D. Slocum, who tangled with Weinberg. "All were geniuses at making money, sometimes ruthlessly trampling over obstacles, even people. But when the end came, all left fortunes for good works."

Last year, Forbes magazine ranked Weinberg 70th on its list of the 400 richest Americans. By all accounts, his only interest was making money.

He was estranged from his only son - whom he excluded from his will - and never bothered with the trappings of the huge wealth he accumulated in real estate, municipal transit companies and other ventures.

Weinberg moved to Honolulu in 1968, and as in Baltimore, his offices were drab, his car was 10 or 15 years old, his clothes came off the rack and he hated publicity.

One of his foes, Colin Cameron, president of the Maui Land and Pineapple Co., called Weinberg an "obnoxious" man who did "nothing with money except make it" and regarded his financial activities as "a game for his own sake."

But after he was diagnosed with the cancer, Weinberg announced he would give all his money away and developed an interest in the elderly.

On a humid day in 1989 while visiting several nursing homes in Israel, he wrote a $1 million check on the spot to pay for air conditioning in every nursing home in the country.