A boat-rocker all his life

February 21, 1997|By Jack L. Levin

A QUARTER-CENTURY after his death, one realizes how sorely missed and badly needed today are the unique leadership qualities of the Baltimore social activist, industrialist and philanthropist, Sidney Hollander Sr.

He had the ability to inspire and arouse people to become participants instead of spectators in the struggle for social justice. He once stated as a guiding principle, ''I don't want any privilege for myself or my family that other people do not have.''

Today, Sidney Hollander would cry out that we are preoccupied with material goods and political inanities, while ignoring and denying the sufferings, despair and rage of millions of children and adolescents suffering hunger, sickness and homelessness. He would be making every effort, locally and nationally, to rouse the public from its slumber.

He did that so well, that in 1940, a leader of the Junior League of America who had heard him scold other organizations, invited him to rouse the league out of its torpor by addressing its national convention in Seattle.

Sidney readily accepted. He told his hostesses that their public image was that of odd creatures from the social register photographed at dog shows and on Florida beaches; silly debutantes playing make-believe with things they did not understand; alternating between teas and cocktail parties. How, asked, could he talk to such a bunch about democracy and social work?

He went on as follows: ''Never was there a time in the history of our country when it was so possible to provide people with the things they need. Our supplies of food, steel, glass, lumber and cement are so huge that none should have to go without. Industry has produced countless gadgets to ease the burden of toil for many of us. Yet, in the midst of all this bounty, millions lack food, clothing, shelter and all things that should contribute to security and the satisfaction of life.''

That excoriating speech has been called the start of the transformation of the Junior League into a socially constructive organization. Its projects in Baltimore include public advocacy, library projects, Children's House at Johns Hopkins Hospital, family centers that offer prevention-oriented programs for adults and children, a thrift shop, New Start Furnishings for homeless families and other good works.

Denied a diploma

Sidney Hollander was a boat-rocker all his life. When he graduated from Baltimore City College in 1916, he was denied his diploma because he had written an editorial in the school newspaper upbraiding the administration for its shortcomings. Fifty years later, City College finally awarded its distinguished graduate his high school diploma.

Sidney and his brother Walter started a pharmaceutical manufacturing firm. One of their products was the cough DTC suppressant, REM. The firm was later sold to a larger company for a sum that provided the basis for Sidney's many philanthropies.

His success as a businessman and philanthropist won acceptance, credibility and respectability for Sidney's advocacy of racial integration and equality -- ideas that might otherwise have been spurned by some of his peers.

Sidney grew up in an exciting time when America was feeling its oats. As a young man, he was caught up in the national euphoria ignited by Theodore Roosevelt's big-stick policies asserting America's new strength, but Sidney was also sensitive to America's shortcomings. He was a patriot, but also a constructive critic. He made some enemies, but never lost their respect.

In his honor, the Maryland Chapter of the American Jewish Congress in 1965 established the Sidney Hollander Award of Distinction to a person seen as trying to follow in his footsteps. I was honored the first year. Recipients include Jacob J. Edelman, labor lawyer; Rabbi Samuel Rosenblatt; Sen. Joseph D. Tydings; Rabbi Israel M. Goldman, a leader in the civil-rights movement; Esther Lazarus, a pioneer in social service; Dr. Hyman S. Rubenstein, psychiatrist and president of the Maryland Chapter; Sen. Charles McC. Mathias; City Councilman Alexander Stark; Dr. Harry Bard, founder of the community-college movement in Baltimore; Sen. Paul Sarbanes; the Rev. Joseph M. Connolly; Judge Robert B. Watts and the Rev. Frederick Hanna, jointly, as champions of civil liberties and rights; and Ruth Wolf Rehfeld, social activist and community leader. This year's honoree is John Ferron, former director of the Baltimore Human Rights Commission.

Sidney Hollander set the pace for social action for years to come. Events of the past quarter-century have weakened our faith in government and our power to influence it. Sidney Hollander's life reminds us that we have the power if we have the will. He made it more fun to do good than to do nothing.

Jack L. Levin is a Baltimore businessman.

Pub Date: 2/21/97

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