New book explores Julius Rosenwald: The Man Who Built Sears

Peter Ascoli image
For someone who never met Julius Rosenwald, historian Peter M. Ascoli knows far more about his grandfather than many grandchildren know about their grandparents. Ascoli, author of "Julius Rosenwald: The Man Who Built Sears, Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of Black Education in the American South" (Indiana University Press; $35), due on bookshelves June 15, began research on his grandfather's biography in 1993.

The Hyde Park resident refers to the 13 years of research and writing as a "journey" and admits it hasn't always been easy. Born 10 years after the death of his philanthropist grandfather, Ascoli had heard little about his grandfather, the son of first-generation German Jewish immigrants, from his mother, Marion Rosenwald Ascoli. Ascoli knew that Rosenwald had been the president of Sears, Roebuck & Co. and fashioned it into the greatest mail-order firm in the world, and he knew that his grandfather had given away $63 million of his own wealth to causes reflecting his commitment to social justice and equality, and had founded the Museum of Science and Industry, but he had little sense of his grandfather as a person.

"My mother didn't talk about my grandfather," admits Ascoli, other than sharing an occasional childhood memory such as her father accompanying her and younger brother, William, to school—walking a block, then running a block—while a chauffeur followed.

Poring through archival collections in libraries and a treasure trove of 30 boxes of family archives in an aunt's attic in New Orleans, Ascoli learned that his grandfather's most lasting legacy is little known in today's society: Rosenwald used his great wealth and skills to try to fix what he viewed as wrong in the world. He established social services to meet the needs of 100,000 impoverished Jewish immigrants, spurred the establishment of 27 YMCA-YWCAs to serve African Americans in cities across the U.S. (including the Wabash Avenue YMCA in Chicago), established one of the nation's first low-income housing projects, and effectively supported the creation of more than 5,000 schools (known as the Rosenwald Schools) for African American children in more than 15 Southern states, at a time when very few received any public education.

Ascoli, who calls his grandfather "JR" in the book to make him "more human, more approachable," says that he had difficulty finding materials about Rosenwald's work at Sears. "The vast majority of those papers have disappeared," Ascoli explains, adding, "I suspect, although I cannot prove it, that JR obtained all the records of his years at Sears and asked that they be destroyed, because he wanted to be remembered primarily as a philanthropist." However, the author determined that his grandfather came to the rescue of Sears, which was facing an operating loss of more than $16 million in 1922, by giving $5 million of his own money to the company and by purchasing the land on which the Sears plant stood for $15 million.

Ascoli, 64, who teaches fundraising for the master's degree program in the management of nonprofit social service agencies, at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago, says Rosenwald's $1 million challenge grant to the American Jewish Committee to aid Jewish victims of World War I—at the time the largest gift ever given by an individual to a public charity—began a trend in fundraising and philanthropy.

And, he notes, his grandfather "broke the mold" for philanthropic giving in the U.S. by creating the first major American foundation designed to go out of existence on its own, in accordance with Rosenwald's belief that each generation should give away its own money. Ascoli is pleased that his grandfather's legacy is recognized and remembered with the Julius Rosenwald Award, the highest honor given by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

Ascoli, who received bachelor's degrees from the University of Chicago and St. Catherine's College, Oxford, and a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley—all in European history—laments what had to be omitted from his grandfather's biography. "The publisher said I had to cut it by a third, and I wrestled with that for 10 months. For example, I had to leave out his incredible relationship with a black biologist at Howard University."

Asked which of his grandfather's traits he inherited, Ascoli shifts his weight and responds, "Boy, that's tough. Well, I like to think I'm open in dealing with people. I inherited my father's temper, not my grandfather's. He wasn't a saint; he did get angry, but it would pass like a thunderstorm. I'm not as good a manager as he was, and though I like to think of myself as a modest person, perhaps not modest in the same fashion as my grandfather. What I did inherit from my mother and grandfather was a sense of philanthropy."

That treasure trove of artifacts discovered in his aunt's attic still fascinates Ascoli, who hankers to use the letters, photos and information to write another book, a snapshot of life from 1910 to 1912.

Before that happens, Ascoli has speaking engagements, book fairs and book signings for his current book. And he and his wife, Lucy, are off to Brookline, Mass., to spend more time with his first grandson, Yonathan, born Feb. 6 to his daughter, Elizabeth Tsapira, and son-in-law. It's time that Peter Ascoli cherishes because he knows more than a little about the importance of family history.

Julius Rosenwald: First president of JUF's precursor

Julius Rosenwald took a leadership role in establishing social services to meet the needs of some 100,000 impoverished Jewish immigrants who settled in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. Later, he worked to unite the city's German and Eastern European Jewish communities. As president of the Federated Orthodox Charities, Rosenwald led calls for a merger with the Associated Jewish Charities (the forerunner of the Jewish United Fund). In 1923, the Jewish community took that major step toward solidarity, and Rosenwald became the first president of the combined Jewish Charities of Chicago, which in 1949 was renamed the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

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