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Originally published June 1, 2013 at 8:01 PM | Page modified June 1, 2013 at 8:32 PM

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Admired Seattle real-estate entrepreneur Morris Piha dies

The founder of Morris Piha Real Estate Services, the Seattle-based company owning 130 properties, died after a short battle with cancer.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Morris “Morrie” Piha acquired hundreds of properties in the Northwest over his 48-year career.

The founder and chairman of Morris Piha Real Estate Services died May 14 after a brief battle with cancer. He was 79.

Mr. Piha founded his company in 1965, working out of a small office in downtown Seattle’s Hoge Building. Now the company has a large Bellevue office, more than 30 employees and owns about 130 properties, including the North Square Design Center, the Radar Electric Building and Overlake Square in Redmond.

Mr. Piha was born in Portland and moved to Seattle when he was about 9 years old. His parents, Samuel and Vida Piha, who emigrated from the Greek island of Rhodes, wanted to join Seattle’s growing Sephardim Jewish community.

He attended Garfield High School, graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in accounting and served two years in the U.S. Coast Guard. When he returned from service in 1960, Mr. Piha started his real-estate career working for M. Ross Downs and Herb Meltzer.

Mr. Piha started his own business five years later and soon owned most of historic downtown Bellingham, possessing keen interest in being a “big fish in a little pond,” said David Azose, Mr. Piha’s cousin and president of the company.

David Benoliel joined Mr. Piha’s one-man business seven years after its founding. A spare door on top of two file cabinets in the copy room became Benoliel’s first desk, and a 41-year relationship was born.

Benoliel, now Morris Piha Real Estate Services’ executive vice president, said when his wife’s father introduced him to Mr. Piha, “It was pretty much love at first sight.”

The fondness Benoliel felt for Mr. Piha was not unique.

“It wasn’t Mr. Piha; it was Morrie,” Azose said. It wasn’t uncommon for him to give an employee or client a big hug for a birthday, or ask about their family. “Everybody liked him.”

Son Sandy Piha, who once worked for his father, called him more of a “best friend and mentor” than a father or boss.

Sandy Piha, 48, began working for his father’s company in 1988 as a fax-machine runner. He held positions as a property manager and broker before moving on to his own real-estate business in 2010, called S.M. Piha Co.

“I wanted to give him a chance to retire when he was ready, and not worry about me,” Piha said.

Azose took over as president in 1984 when he and Mr. Piha became partners. Mr. Piha remained chairman and his grip on the company gradually loosened. His dedication to it did not.

He and his wife, Marlene, started traveling to Palm Springs for four months each year.

“He complained bitterly about the idea of the desert,” Azose said. “What he really loved was real estate. ... I don’t think he could ever really retire.”

He also loved to paint and spend time with loved ones. Mr. Piha sponsored a softball team called “Morrie’s Kids” that his children played on when they were younger. He never missed a game. He co-founded ROMEO — “Retired Old Men Eating Out,” a club made up of his childhood friends. Each month, they would meet up and eat at a restaurant together.

Azose describes Mr. Piha as an unassuming man. “He was just cute,” Azose said. “If you saw him on the street, you wouldn’t think he’s a big, successful real-estate guy.”

Azose said Mr. Piha once visited a shopping center he owned in Burien after hearing that it might flood. Mr. Piha was inspecting the situation when a tenant approached him and claimed to know the owner, Morris Piha, personally. The tenant threatened him, telling him that if he didn’t fix the issue he would call Mr. Piha, and he would lose his job.

Mr. Piha chose not to reveal his identity. Instead, he assured the tenant he would take care of it right away.

Among his list of “Morriesms” frequently recited by friends and family was: “At the end of the day, all you have is your name and your reputation.” So Mr. Piha strove to foster friendly relationships with everyone around him.

“How can one person have so many friends?” Azose said.

He is survived by his wife and son; daughter Ricca Poll; six grandchildren; siblings Victor S. Piha and Esther Kligerman; and mother-in-law Rita Calderon.

Mr. Piha asked that donations be made to the City of Hope in memory of daughter Vicki Lynn.

Mr. Piha also supported and served on the boards of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Samis Foundation, Foundation Bank and the Sephardic Brotherhood.

His memorial service was held May 17 at the Sephardic Bikur Holim Synagogue, of which he was a longtime member. He was buried at Seattle’s Sephardic Brotherhood Cemetery.

At Mr. Piha’s funeral and memorial service, Azose and Sandy Piha said guest after guest uttered the same phrase: “That’s my best friend.”

Alysa Hullett: 206-464-2718 or ahullett@seattletimes.com

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