One of the richest men in U.S. history did something that benefits you today.
He was Stephen Girard (1750 - 1831), born to a French family of modest means. His mother died when he was just 11, and at 13, Stephen sailed off on a ship as an apprentice, to make his way in the world, a sad and lonely boy who had never gone to school.
But determined to become successful he worked hard, and learned about shipping and of buying, selling and distributing cargoes. He also settled in Philadelphia during the American Revolution in 1776 for he saw enormous opportunity.
Having no money, he used other people’s money to buy and sell cargo as he sailed their ships in joint ventures with them. By agreement, Stephen kept part of the profits. Later, he went out on his own and he used that money to make a fortune by investing in ships and in shipping his and other people’s goods all over the world, becoming America’s richest person.
Late in his life Stephen had no children to leave his fortune to. But he never forgot his childhood struggles of loneliness and fear, no formal education and no-one to give him a helping hand.
He wanted to help other poor children by giving them a home and a formal education. This was a revolutionary concept for in America there were no public schools. There were church schools for some students and private academies for the sons of the wealthy.
Stephen knew to build a better society, destitute children needed to be educated. And he wanted to start that education when they were young and impressionable and provide the means to open doors of opportunity for them. What he did next stunned the people of his time.
In one of the biggest single acts of philanthropy in American history, Stephen funded in perpetuity Girard College [grades 1 to 12] to give thousands of poor children an outstanding free education on a gorgeous and safe campus. He also fed, clothed and housed them there and even set aside funds to pay for their college. In a sense, they would be as privileged as the children of the rich.
Girard College had its grand opening in Philadelphia on 45 privately walled acres in 1848. But for all of his generosity, Stephen was still a man of his time. His will proclaimed that all students had to be “poor male white orphans.” And in gender and color it was that way for the next century.
But when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school segregation in 1954, school districts across America were impacted. For Girard College this began a 14-year legal battle to avoid integration. In 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Girard’s front gates and joined the picketing as he publicly encouraged them to integrate.
They refused. Then in 1968 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the “white” provision in Stephen Girard’s will to end that legal battle as the first black boys were enrolled. It took 16 years more of litigation before the first black girls were enrolled in 1984.
Today, of its 720 students, about 93% are African American, and 55% are female. Nearly all of its students who graduate go to college, a remarkable achievement in itself.
Over 21,000 students have attended Girard College over the years. For many, Stephen Girard transformed their lives, lifting them from poverty and producing thousands of successful citizens.
“I’m a son of Stephen Girard,” said one of those students, Steve Biondolillo (Class of 1973). “I was born in Brooklyn. My father died when I was 6.” It left Steve’s mother to raise three children, ages 6, 5 and seven weeks on her own. “She had no job, little education, no social security, no pension.
“My mother went on welfare,” Steve continued. “Food stamps, blocks of government cheese. My mother was 33 years old, with 3 kids and drowning.”
Steve and his siblings became wards of the court, and he and his brother were later admitted to Girard. “The school provides a sense of structure,” he said. “When you live in poverty and welfare it’s chaotic.” You can go hungry, wear tattered old clothing and your life may be at risk.
The U.S. welfare system is well-known for its drugs, crime and violence and that many children stuck in it wind up dead or in jail. With its strict discipline, high standards and structure, Girard is no joy ride and some students drop out.
“You sleep 2 beds down from someone who comes in and cries himself to sleep for 2 weeks,” said Steve. “Not dissimilar from being in the military. It’s hard but as you overcome the challenge, you bond with others.”
And “academically I had opportunities,” Steve stated. “Outstanding departments. Always a group of instructors well credentialed and beyond what you had in most high schools. Some of the academic opportunities were second to none.”
As a top Girard student, “I wind up with scholarship offers to over 100 institutions,” Steve said. He went to Boston University. “I got a Bachelor’s Degree and was the Valedictorian. 4,000 kids in the class [and Steve was No. 1]. Girard prepared me. Far superior academic training.”
Today, Steve is a successful businessman and the father of three children, all top students.
“My dad died September 1, 1961, at 47 of a heart attack,” said Kevin Feeley, also Girard class of 1973. “I was 4 when my dad died.”
As a single mother living in a modest home with her four little boys, Kevin’s mother went to work and she also went to school. Later she got Bachelors and Masters Degrees and taught in public schools for many years.
But in those early years, it was all she could do to support her family. “I started Girard at 8, in the fall of 1965,” Kevin stated.
“Kids who come from broken homes,” said Kevin in describing Girard students. “Neighborhoods they come from are war zones. Girard molds them, almost every one goes on to college. They become productive citizens. They are literally saving kids. No question but for Girard many of those kids would be dead or in jail.”
After graduating from Girard, Kevin got his Bachelors Degree from the University of Pennsylvania and later at Girard’s expense a law degree from Temple University. Kevin became a journalist, then an attorney and later spokesperson for Philadelphia Mayor [now Governor] Ed Rendell.
Today Kevin heads a major public relations firm and he is the father of three children, all excellent students, and for 19 years, happily married. “If you want to battle poverty,” Kevin said in a serious tone. “Education is the start. Girard is a life raft for these children.”
So how does Stephen Girard’s generosity to poor children benefit you? His money rescued them by the thousands and transformed them as many became productive citizens and loving parents as they have made our society and in some cases the world, a better place.
Success Tip of the Week:
Many schools are short of money. Please follow Stephen Girard’s lead and contribute so they can afford books, teacher’s aids and other necessities.
In the next KazanToday:
A valuable life lesson from a Salvation Army cadet.