A 'Big Brother' Should Be Wiser and Older, and Founder Irv Westheimer Fits the Bill Just Fine—He's 100

updated 10/08/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/08/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When I was born," said the birthday boy, "Rutherford B. Hayes was president, and the country's population was 50 million. Edison invented the electric lamp, the first bar of Ivory soap floated onto the market, and Wool-worth opened its five-and-dime. It was a pretty good year."

At his 100th birthday party last month, Cincinnati financier Irvin Westheimer modestly neglected to include himself among the major benefactors of 1879. As founder of Big Brothers, Westheimer has helped more than a million kids. Today the organization has 300,000 adult and child members in the U.S. and branches in 13 other countries.

Westheimer started the program on impulse in 1903 when he was 23. Looking down from his office window, he saw a young boy rummaging through a garbage can, searching for food for himself and his dog. Westheimer rushed down to the alley and befriended the boy. "Our group is different from most," says Westheimer. "We're set up to deal with kids on a one-to-one basis. When I started out it was just one boy and me. Then I got other businessmen interested—first 12 in Cincinnati, then more in cities where I traveled on business. I guess I was Big Brothers' Johnny Appleseed. What Big Brothers/Big Sisters [they merged in 1977] does," Westheimer adds, "is provide kids who have only one parent with an adult friend. They meet weekly. The adult doesn't replace the parent. They just provide that kid with another adult who really cares."

Westheimer's philanthropy dates back to when he was selling Red Top whiskey for his father. When Prohibition hit, Irvin formed his own brokerage firm and became a friend to the powerful, from the Rothschilds to Albert Einstein to Jerry Ford.

At his party, Westheimer sipped champagne with a parade of visitors including 29 relatives (his wife died at 82 in 1972). Cincinnati's mayor brought the obligatory keys to the city, and the honoree quipped: "Front door, or back?" Wisely, Westheimer resists the temptation to advise others on age. "Sometimes when I wake up in the morning, I feel kind of groggy," muttered one friend. "How do you feel, Irv?" The 100-year-old man's reply: "Surprised."

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