Books for Africa founder Tom Warth will celebrate his 80th birthday next month by leading a group of walkers across Zanzibar in East Africa — his latest offbeat fundraising endeavor.
His entourage will include the former first lady of Tanzania and at least a dozen Minnesotans, many of whom gathered Saturday for a send-off party for the philanthropist, who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro for his 70th birthday.
Warth, a retired book publisher who lives in Marine on St. Croix, downplays the feat.
“I’m an old guy who just keeps moving,” he joked.
The “moving” has been just one reason Books for Africa has carved a niche as the largest donor of books to the continent. Warth launched the project in 1988 after visiting a library in Uganda in dire need of books. Since then, it has shipped more than 34 million books, donated to the charity, to 49 African nations.
Walking has become a regular fundraising event for Warth. In 2012, he led a group across Gambia in West Africa. He also has led walks across Wisconsin and Minnesota, and from Iowa to the Canadian border.
The group that gathered Saturday at the Commodore restaurant in St. Paul will travel more than 8,500 miles to an island off Tanzania to join Warth.
One by one, they stood up and introduced themselves Saturday.
They included Twin Cities public policy analyst Luanne Nyberg, Emma Kasiga of the African Development Center, St. Paul real estate developer John Rupp and his wife, Stephanie Laitala Rupp, and several longtime friends of Warth.
All said they’re making the journey to honor Warth and his achievements.
“This organization would not exist without him,” Nyberg said. “He founded it and funded it out of his own pocket.”
Warth, who immigrated to the United States from England in 1960, ran a book-publishing business until selling it in 1988. He used the proceeds to launch Books for Africa long before the creative fundraising events kicked in.
The Zanzibar walk will feature a bit of star power. The former first lady of Tanzania, Anna Mkapa, will participate in both the walk and a birthday party for Warth on Feb. 5. The son of baseball legend Jackie Robinson, longtime Tanzania resident David Robinson, also will join the group.
The 20-mile trek will cross the island in two days. Groups of schoolchildren will join in, Warth said. The entourage will stop along the way to donate books and talk to people at schools and elsewhere.
The heat and humidity of tropical Zanzibar will be a welcome relief for Warth, who acknowledges that getting in shape for the trip has been tough in a Minnesota winter. He’s heading to Australia next week to spend time with his grandchildren, where his workout will begin in earnest on a warm beach.
The fundraiser is expected to raise more than $50,000 — which will support the shipping of donated books to Africa and other expenses. More than 2 million books are donated each year to the nonprofit from across the country. Donors include individual Minnesotans who drop of a bag or two at its St. Paul warehouse to publishing houses that fill entire semitrailer trucks.
Warth said he chose Zanzibar for the fundraising walk “because it’s an exotic location.” But holding the fundraiser in such a location, and having a birthday party sponsored by a former first lady, do pose a dilemma, he said.
Joked Warth: “Now I’m challenged to see what I’m going to do on my 90th birthday.”