Editor’s Note: If you’re like me, you have always assumed that Big Brothers Big Sisters of America–which forever shaped the modern mentoring movement–was founded by court clerk and child advocate Ernest Coulter in the early 1900’s. But a little research (o.k. procrastination) revealed another less sung hero in it’s origins. Irvin Westheimer, who lived for more than 100 years, is actually credited with founding Big Brothers. And, perhaps you already knew that Cornelius Vanderbilt founded Big Sisters? Take a look at this 1981 New York Times obituary (below).
IRVIN F. WESTHEIMER, 101, FOUNDER OF BIG BROTHERS AT START OF CENTURY
CINCINNATI, Dec. 31— Irvin F. Westheimer, who was inspired to form the Big Brothers organization when he saw a ragged boy and his dog rummaging through trash for food 77 years ago, died yesterday at the age of 101 years.
Mr. Westheimer’s ambition and business knowledge led him through a successful career as a whisky salesman, banker, stockbroker and head of an investment concern, but he said that he was proudest of founding the organization devoted to providing friendship to fatherless boys.
Born Sept. 19, 1879 in Newark, N.J., Mr. Westheimer moved with his family a short time later to St. Joseph, Mo. He joined his father’s business, the Westheimer Distillery, in 1901 as a salesman and opened an office in downtown Cincinnati.
It was on the July 4, 1903, that the idea of Big Brothers was born. Mr. Westheimer had gone to the office to work that Saturday, but he forgot business after glancing from the window and seeing a boy and his dog going through trash cans in search of food.
Recalls Boy’s Search for Food
”I glanced out the window and saw a boy rummaging in a garbage can for food for himself and his scruffy-looking dog,” Mr. Westheimer recalled decades later.
”I said to myself, ‘God did not create all men equal.’ I put on my hat – all properly dressed young men wore hats in those days – went down to the alley and introduced myself to the boy. His name was Tom and his dog was named Gyp. The boy was frightened at first but I took him to lunch.”
Later, Mr. Westheimer met the boy’s family and discovered that he was one of five or six fatherless children. He helped Tom’s mother find a better job but he was not content to let the matter rest.
New York Group Is Formed
He told the story to friends and other businessmen in Cincinnati, and the first Big Brothers chapter was formed. That group was predominantly Jewish, and the New York City Big Brothers group, which was established a short time later, was Protestant.
By 1958, however, when Big Brothers of America was chartered by Congress, it had crossed religious and racial lines. The Big Sisters Movement, also begun in the early 1900’s by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, merged with Big Brothers in 1977.
Today, Big Brothers-Big Sisters of America has about 360 agencies nationwide serving more than 150,000 children each year. ”If anybody doesn’t believe in sectarianism, it is me,” Mr. Westheimer once said. ”I’m a Cincinnatian. I am not a Jew first. I am opposed as I could possibly be to segregation. I am an American of the Jewish faith.”
Headed Investment Concern
Mr. Westheimer, who moved to Cincinnati permanently in 1915, headed Westheimer Investment Brokers until it merged with Hayden, Stone in 1963. Mr. Westheimer went into semi-retirement then, but remained active in philanthropic work.
In 1977, he was presented the Ohio Governor’s Award by Gov. James A. Rhodes. It was among many such honors that he received in recognition of his efforts on behalf of people less fortunate than himself.
Mr. Westheimer is survived by his sons, Charles and Robert. His wife, Duffie, died in 1974.