“Rosenwald Dead; Nation Mourns Him.” That was the headline at the top of the front page of the New York Times on January 7, 1932. Julius Rosenwald had been at the helm of one of the country’s most popular retailers, Sears, Roebuck and Company, for over a quarter century and he had amassed an immense fortune. He was well known for that and also for his generosity to causes as disparate as schools for black children in the rural South and colonies for Jews in Soviet Russia. In Chicago, where he had lived almost his whole adult life, Rosenwald was routinely identified as that city’s premier resident (though he sometimes shared billing with Jane Addams). At his death, President Hoover issued a statement mourning the loss of this “outstanding citizen.”
Other wealthy men of his time – John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford – attracted attention for their luxurious lifestyles as well as their businesses and philanthropies. They left their names on not only vast commercial enterprises but on libraries, concert halls, museums and the charitable foundations they established as vehicles for future contributions to society. Rosenwald opposed what he called the “dead hand” of perpetuities and he used his own name sparingly. When the institution he founded in Chicago was initially named the “Rosenwald Museum,” he insisted it be changed to the Museum of Science and Industry. At his direction, the Rosenwald Fund that dispensed his money to innumerable worthy causes closed its doors in 1948. Today the name Julius Rosenwald is no longer well known.
But it should be. The son of German Jewish immigrants, Rosenwald never graduated from high school yet he became a decisive, effective business executive and a visionary thinker about philanthropy. Feeling that it was luck as much as effort and skill that had brought him his extraordinary fortune, he wished to use the bulk of it for the good of his country and he was willing to reach beyond his own sphere of knowledge and comfort to find ways to do so. His contributions – of money but also of his time, attention and enthusiasm — were great and their impact lasting. A lively man of modesty, humor and enormous curiosity, he lived a life worth remembering and telling.