Albert “Jim” Abrahmson, became the first Jewish student accepted to Bowdoin College in 1923 following his graduation from Portland High School. His intellect was such that Bowdoin President K.C.M. Sills spotted his application and offered sufficient scholarship aid which, together with part-time work, enabled Jim to attend the College and to graduate in 1926 at the top of his class.
After receiving his Master of Economics from Columbia in 1927, he returned to Bowdoin College becoming the institution’s first Jewish Faculty member at the age of twenty-two. He served the College for fifty years, becoming the Dean of Faculty from 1950 to 1961.
Serving was a way of life for this native Portlander, the youngest of five children who emigrated from the Ukraine with their parents Rose and Lazarus and settled on Munjoy Hill. These roots and family values shaped Jim’s view of people and the world no matter where he traveled and the powerful people he worked with several faculty members recalled that when Jim knew that a student was having financial difficulties, funds from an “anonymous donor” would suddenly be made available to dispense to the needy student. Jim had a big heart and, according to Professor Bill Shipman, Jim had subsidized the law school education of several students as well.
Jim’s talents did not go unnoticed. Even though a Republican, in 1934 he was invited to join the Roosevelt administration as Staff Economist for the Cabinet Committee on Price Policy. Jim thrived on being a member of FDR’s “brains trust”.
In 1935, W.P.A. National Administrator Harry Hopkins installed Jim (a registered Republican) as State Administrator, prompting howls of protest from both sides. Republicans distrusted his connections to the Roosevelt administration, while Democrats thought he was a radical Republican with “socialist tendencies.” It took a little time, but Jim’s firm and non-partisan hand put 11,000 Mainers back to work in projects all over the State. He managed a $7 million annual budget (128 million in today’s dollars), obtained relief aid following the devastating spring floods of 1936, and gradually he won the skeptics over before he was thirty years old!
Jim became Executive Director of the Jewish Occupational Council in New York in 1939-40 and Executive Director of the National Refugee Service in New York from 1941-43. Jim gave a series of speeches encouraging the incorporation of refugees into the American war effort, since refugees were clear about what they were fleeing from and what they were fleeing to.
He enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army in 1943 and was quickly assigned to the Office of Strategic Services in Washington. The year 1944 saw him as the Assistant Executive Director of the U.S. War Refugee Board. While the Board did not have a long life, it was instrumental in redirecting some strategic bombing in Europe and getting food and medical supplies to the concentration camps.
Jim became increasingly interested in Israel, not only because of his secular religious beliefs, but also his passion for refugees and underdogs. In 1954, he was Economic Consultant to the Israel Study Mission sponsored by the United Jewish Appeal.
Jim’s health began to deteriorate in the early 1970’s forcing him to retire in 1976. He retained his characteristic clarity of mind and compassion for others until his death in 1988. The Albert Abrahamson Reading Room was dedicated in 1984 in appreciation for all that Jim had done for Bowdoin College over the years.
Jim’s Legacy may be summed up by Professor William Shipman, “While we think of him now as having made great contributions to his College, he might equally well be remembered as one of Bowdoin’s better contributions to the 20th century.”
Born and raised in Boston, MA, to Russian immigrants, Dr. Albert Aranson received his education at Boston Latin School before matriculating at Harvard University, where he graduated cum laude in 1935 with a BS degree in Biochemistry. While at Harvard, he played football and wrestled, winning the 1935 intercollegiate heavyweight wrestling championship of New England. Having decided to attend medical school over the rabbinate and biblical archeology, he endured three attempts to be accepted because of the Jewish admissions quotas at the time, finally receiving his MD degree at Boston University School of Medicine. Despite anti-Semitism levied by the faculty there, he graduated cum laude at the top of his class in 1941. He completed his residency training in Internal Medicine at Boston City Hospital from 1941-1944.
During World War II, Dr. Aranson served as a lieutenant in the Sixth Marine Division in the Pacific arena as a medical officer and assistant surgeon. After WWII, he trained in Pulmonary Medicine at the Cushing VA Medical Center in Framingham, MA, and in bronchoesophagology at the renowned Jackson Clinic at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, PA. In 1947, Dr. Aranson became the Cushing’s first Chief of Pulmonary Medicine directly out of fellowship, a promotion almost unheard of in those days. There, he pioneered the use of streptomycin, the first medication developed to treat tuberculosis (TB).
Dr. Aranson married the former Golde Leah Rodman in 1942, and in 1948 the couple moved to Portland, ME, where they raised 4 accomplished sons.
Dr. Aranson’s medical career in Maine spanned 45 years. From 1948-1967, he was in private practice in Internal Medicine and Pulmonology. During this period, he established the State’s first Respiratory Therapy departments, pulmonary function laboratories, and intensive care units at the Maine Medical Center (MMC) and Mercy Hospital, and the first TB clinic and Division of Pulmonary Medicine at MMC. In 1962, Dr. Aranson was appointed Chief of Medicine at MMC. In 1967, he gave up his private practice to become that hospital’s first full-time Chief of Medicine, a position he held for 20 years. That era witnessed one of the most dramatic growth periods of the State’s largest general hospital. In 1968, Dr. Aranson took on the tobacco lobby by having cigarette machines banned at MMC.
In 1969, Dr. Aranson became Director of Medical Education at MMC. In that capacity, he was instrumental in establishing Maine’s “Medical School Without Walls,” a compact with Tufts University School of Medicine and the University of Vermont College of Medicine, to facilitate acceptance of Maine students to medical school. Dr. Aranson was a Professor of Medicine at both medical schools. With selfless dedication to patient care and legendary teaching, Dr. Aranson trained hundreds of students of nursing, medicine, and respiratory therapy, many of whom chose to settle in Maine because of his encouragement.
Dr. Aranson held numerous leadership positions in major local, state, and national medical organizations, including as president of the Maine Thoracic Society, founder and president of the Maine Chapter of the American Society of Internal Medicine, and Governor of the State of Maine for the American College of Physicians and the American College of Chest Physicians. Dr. Aranson was a fellow in both colleges. His memberships also included the American Thoracic Society and the American Physicians Fellowship for Medicine in Israel, among several others.
Dr. Aranson was the recipient of many prominent awards during his career, including the Laureate Award from the Maine Chapter of the American College of Physicians, the Koch Award from the Maine Bureau of Health’s Division of Disease Control, the Roselle W. Huddilston Award from the American Lung Association of Maine, and the Legends Award from the American Association for Respiratory Care.
Aside from his medical career, Dr. Aranson was an eclectic individual with many hobbies, interests, and talents, including sailing, horticulture, and cooking. Neighbors and friends knew him not only as a medical doctor, but as a doctor of house repairs, often calling upon him to diagnose and fix plumbing, heating, and electrical problems. He built his first color television set and even designed his own house of 47 years. Dr. Aranson was an avid reader who considered books sacred tools of learning, which were seldom found far from his side. He espoused that reading and a good education were paramount to making something of oneself. He was a scholar of biblical exegesis and archeology, theology, and anthropology, and was fascinated by the history of scientific discoveries.
Dr. Aranson was a member of the Jewish Federation and Temple Beth El, where he served as its vice president and president, chairman of its Jewish Education Committee, and adult advisor to the United Synagogue Youth.
Dr. Lawrence Mark Cutler was the fifth of six children – five sons and one daughter – of Edwin and Rachel Cutler. Edwin Cutler was a native of Russia who arrived in Bangor in the late 1880’s, moved to Old Town in 1891, and became a successful and respected merchant.
Dr. Cutler graduated from the University of Maine and Tufts Medical School, served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps in the South Pacific in World War II, and for almost 50 years practiced internal medicine in Bangor. In 1934 he became the first Jewish member of the medical staff at what is now the Eastern Maine Medical Center, where he served as chief of the medical service for more than 20 years.
A major figure in education in Maine, Dr. Cutler served on the Bangor School Board for ten years, including several as chair, and on the University of Maine Board of Trustees for 20 years, including 12 as president of the Board. He was Chair of the Governor’s Advisory Committee on Education and a delegate to the White House Conference on Education. In 1974 Colby College awarded him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. The University’s Orono campus health center was named in his honor in 1976. Lawrence Cutler died in Bangor in 1984 at the age of 77.
Catherine Epstein Cutler (“Kay”) was the daughter of Harry and Ida (Goldsmith) Epstein. Harry Epstein immigrated to Maine in 1886 from a shtetl near Vilna Gubernia. He arrived in North America alone as a penniless 12-year old. For the first several years of his life in Maine he was a peddler, walking back and forth from Bangor to Calais. He later married Ida Goldsmith from Old Town and became a respected wholesaler for the National Confectionery Company in Bangor. Even though he lost his business in the Great Depression, all three of Harry and Ida Epstein’s daughters were able to earn college and graduate degrees during the 1930’s, Kay attended Bangor public schools (her cousin, fellow inductee, and lifelong friend Sidney Epstein was a classmate) and Wellesley College, where she earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in economics. She and Lawrence married in 1939, and she spent the war years in Washington as an economist for the War Labor Board. After the war, they returned to Bangor where she was a tireless advocate for family and child services, mental healthcare reform and opportunities for women in Maine for more than 40 years, founding or holding leadership positions in virtually every major social services organization in eastern Maine. She led the postwar effort to move responsibility for mental health services from the Bureau of Prisons to a separate agency; and after she and Lawrence helped found the Eastern Maine Guidance Center, she led the merger of the Guidance Center with Family and Child Services of Bangor to create what is today Community Health and Counseling Services. She campaigned for expanded opportunities for women, and with federal grant assistance in 1965 founded the Women’s Information and Advisory Service, which provided career counseling to more than 1,500 eastern Maine women who wanted to begin or resume careers in the workforce. As one of her final contributions, and the one of which she was most proud, she directed the development of Spruce Run, an agency serving women and children affected by domestic violence.
In 1986, Kay was one of the first three women awarded the Mary Ann Hartman Award by the University of Maine to “Maine women of exceptional achievement,” and the Cutler Institute for Health and Social Policy at the University of Southern Maine bears her name. She died in Portland in 2003 at the age of 89.
Julius “Yudy” Elowitch was the fourth of six children of Lillian and Samuel Elowitch. He graduated from Portland High School in 1931 where he was an honor student, president of his class, and co-captain of the baseball and football teams. Yudy spent a few months at the University of Florida on an athletic scholarship. When his father died, he came home to help raise the younger children. Together with his brothers Maurice and Abraham, he started Yudy’s Tire Company and developed Permathane.
He married Frances Posternak on Dec. 28, 1934. Frances was a steadfast community volunteer, a wonderful gardener and amazing cook. Frances and Yudy had two children, Linda and Rob, and made their spouses Joel and Annette a welcomed part of the family.
Yudy loved Maine and Maine’s Jewish community and donated his time and talent in the arts, in sports, and in public service. He volunteered as President of the Jewish Community Center and as Chairman of the United Jewish Appeal annual federated campaign; he sang for many years with the Temple Beth El choir; and he performed with the Little Theater Group at the Jewish Community Center. He and Frances served on the Board at the Portland Symphony Orchestra and on the Committee of 100 at the Portland Museum of Art; he sang with the Portland Men’s Chorus; and in 1971, he founded the Fitzpatrick Award for the outstanding High School Football player in the State of Maine, for which he was honored with induction into the National Collegiate Football Hall of Fame in 1996 as a distinguished American. In 1983, he was inducted into the Maine Baseball Hall of Fame.
Frances Elowitch served on the Board of National Council of Jewish Women; Hadassah, was a founder of Temple Beth El; was a Lion of Judah at the Jewish Federation of Southern Maine, has gardens in her name at Cedar’s and, with her husband, was a major donor to both the Abromson Center of the University of Southern Maine and the Payson Wing of the Portland Museum of Art.
Born on July 28, 1913 at home in Bangor to Russian immigrant parents, Sid described himself as a ‘third generation’ Mainer; his grandparents (and great uncles) had joined in the great Jewish exodus from White Russia (now Belarus) at the turn of the last century. His parents and grandparents were part of the thriving Jewish community in Bangor, his grandfather one of the early founders of Congregation Beth Israel and his father a local businessman, starting endeavors from a bottling plant in Milo to the Graphic Theater Circuit, which operated movie theaters in Bangor and many small towns in Maine in the era of silent pictures and vaudeville.
Graduating from Bangor High School in 1931, where he played basketball, Sid attended the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, spent summers working in the movie theaters and in 1935, Sid returned full time to the theater business, managing and opening theaters in Dover-Foxcroft, Dexter, and throughout eastern Maine.
With the WWII draft approaching, Sid tried to enlist in the US Navy, but recruiters were not accepting Jews. Undaunted, he joined the Marines in 1942, and was assigned to Philadelphia, where his business background landed him in materials management. It was there that he met Helen Brill and after a wartime romance, they married in 1946 and moved back to Bangor.
In the 1950’s, with the advent of television, Sid thought it best to plan for a day when no one would attend the movies. He expanded into commercial real estate development and while this eventually became the chief focus of his work, he remained intimately involved with the movie theater business. For decades moviegoers got to know him as he sold tickets, directed traffic at the Bangor Drive In and maintained order at the children’s matinees.
Over the years, Sid’s real estate endeavors expanded from post offices and government office buildings to developing (and redeveloping) many of the retail, office and industrial properties that became part of the local fabric of life in Bangor and surrounding towns. Sid had a passionate interest in his tenants – particularly the small local businesses he believed were such an integral part of the local community. His support was crucial to the success of many Bangor businesses, local contractors and service organizations.
Sid was a fixture and a sought-after advisor in the Bangor business community for decades. He was a director of Northeast Bank (formerly Eastern Trust), president of the Jewish Community Center and lifelong member of Congregation Beth Israel, where he and Helen built the Epstein Room in 1991. Sid was a quiet philanthropist and, for this and his dedication to the community, Sid and Helen were presented with a Key to Bangor. Sid remained active in the community and his business until his late 90’s.
The theater business started by Sid’s father celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2016 and his commercial real estate development business started in the 50’s is still going strong as Epstein Properties, operated by his daughter, Carol Epstein.
Peter Lunder served as Co-Chairman, President, and CEO of Dexter Shoe Company. He is the Chairman of The Lunder Foundation, a family foundation established in 1988. He is a former vice chairman and national board member of the Smithsonian Institution and is Commissioner Emeritus of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). Mr. Lunder graduated from Colby College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1956 and received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree in 1996. He is a Colby College Lifetime Overseer and member of the Colby College Museum of Art governing board. He received an honorary Doctor of Science in Business Administration in 2010 from Thomas College in Waterville, Maine.
Paula Lunder graduated from Lesley University with a Bachelor of Science in Education in 1959. She received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree in 1996 from Colby College and an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in 2010 from Thomas College. At Colby College, Mrs. Lunder is a Lifetime Trustee and a member of the Colby College Museum of Art governing board. Mrs. Lunder volunteered in many organizations over the past 45 years, which include The Waterville Boys and Girls Club, The Kennebec Valley Mental Health Organization, board member of the Maine Holocaust Center for Human Rights, the Maine Public Broadcasting committee to raise awareness and provide funding for digital programming, and the board of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, to name just a few.
Mr. and Mrs. Lunder both serve on the Visiting Committee of Dana-Farber. They have provided funding for the Lunder Building at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), and have established the Lunder Dineen Educational Alliance in partnership with MGH, which provides free educational programs to the healthcare field in Maine. The Lunders are major collectors of American art and were lead donors to the Lunder Wing of American Art at Colby College Museum of Art. They have created the endowed Lunder Chair for Education and Outreach Programs and the lead challenge gift for the Lunder Conservation Center at SAAM, as well as the Lunder Curator of American Art at Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution. They have also created the Lunder Curator of American Art at Colby, the Lunder Whistler Curator of Art at Colby, and the Lunder Institute for American Art at Colby. They provided funding for the Lunder Building at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Their foundation has established scholarship funds at several colleges and universities in New England. They both received honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees from the Maine College of Art.
“My total conscious search in life has been for a new seeing, a new image, a new insight. This search not only includes the object, but the in-between place. The dawns and the dusks. The objective world, the heavenly spheres, the places between the land and sea…Whatever creation man invents, the image can be found in nature. We cannot see anything that we are not already aware of. The inner, the outer = One.” a statement for the exhibition Nature in Abstraction, 1957.
Louise Nevelson by John Gordon, Whitney Museum of Art, 1967, p. 12
Louise Nevelson is one of America’s foremost artists. Nevelson’s sculpted wood assemblages transcended space and transformed the viewer’s perception of art. For her brilliant compositions in varied mediums critics hailed her as the leading sculptor of the twentieth century. A pioneering grand dame of the art world, Nevelson’s iconic persona was characterized by her skilled mixing and matching of ethnic clothing, mink eyelashes, and especially her charismatic presence. Her work can be found in major museums and esteemed private collections worldwide.
Louise Nevelson was born in 1899 in the Ukraine and immigrated to Rockland, Maine in 1905. It was tough for the family to find work, simulate into American culture, and while they spoke Yiddish at home they quickly learned English. Louise graduated Rockland High School and “knowing” she was an artist married Charles Nevelson and moved to NYC. There she had her only child, a son, Mike Nevelson in 1922 and studied at the Art Students League. Her marriage soon fell apart and leaving her young son with family traveled around Europe and studied with the painter Hans Hoffman from 1931-32.
When she returned to New York, she worked with the great Mexican Muralist Diego Rivera (1933) and in 1934 studied sculpting with Chaim Gross at the Educational Alliance, a wonderful school in lower Manhattan with classes taught in Yiddish.
World War II and the return of male artists created a competitive environment in NYC where women artists were slammed with their gender. Abstract Expressionism was the rave and the women were just as important to the development as men but were ignored. Nevelson was among them. She struggled to find her artistic voice along with all the artists. 1941, and at the age of 41, brought her first solo exhibition at the Nierendorf Gallery in NYC. She sold nothing but did gain respect as an artist.
In 1957-58, the box breakthrough came and the exhibition at Grand Central Moderns (NYC) showed everyone her new signature style of wooden crates filled with found wooden objects painted black. The Museum of Modern art acquired one of these creations “Sky Cathedral” where it resides in their Permanent Collection.
More solo and group shows in the US and Europe, numerous news articles and speaking engagements, and constantly working, Nevelson moved to the A-list of American Artists and Art History.
Today, we see her sculptures in museum and private art collections in America, Europe and Japan. The Portland Museum of Art has the black sculpture “Untitled”. The Farnsworth Art Museum has “Endless Column”, as well as, many early paintings and sculptures helping to understanding her early development as a major artist. The Farnsworth also has the second largest repository of Nevelson papers and artwork she personally selected to receive.
Several notable installations are the “Louise Nevelson Plaza” NYC a triangular park with black Cor-Ten steel sculptures up to 20’ high; the white wood “Nevelson Chapel” NYC; “Mrs. N’s Palace” at Metropolitan Museum of Art; “City on the High Mountain” at Storm King Sculpture Park; “Homage to Six Million II” at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem; “Bicentennial Dawn”, Federal Court House, Philadelphia; “Dawn’s Forest”, Baker Art Museum, Naples, FL; and “Sky Horizon”, National Institute of Health, Bethesda, MD.
She has been commemorated by a series of 5 US postage stamps; and some of the many numerous awards: National Medal of the Arts; Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture, Brandeis University Creative Arts Award in Sculpture; National Arts Club Gold Medal in the Visual Arts, American Institute of Architects Medal; Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. And some of the many academic honorary degrees: Smith College; New York University; Columbia University; Boston University, Harvard University; Tufts University; and Art Institute of Chicago.
Louise Nevelson is one of America’s great artists. Her contributions to Abstract Expressionist Art, to inspiring women and young girls to pursue their creative abilities despite familial expectations, and to overcome the cultural challenges she was born into is truly remarkable.
When Nathan Povich arrived in America in 1877, immigration officials changed his name, but not his dream. That 15-year-old boy, known then as Natan Pertzikovitz from Butrimonis, Lithuania, grew to become a successful businessman, a synagogue founder, and a Jewish pioneer in Bar Harbor and Bath.
Nathan had 10 children, and despite the dearth of Jews, saw to it that they all grew up in a Kosher home and had a Jewish education. Today, his grandchildren and two more Povich generations are spread across the United States and the world, from Hawaii to Switzerland.
Yet his legacy is felt strongest in Maine. He owned businesses in both Bar Harbor and Bath and was a charter member of the synagogue in Bath, Beth Israel, which continues to thrive today. The home he purchased in Bath in 1927, on the banks of the Kennebec River, was a nod to the shipbuilding industry that was instrumental in his move from Bar Harbor to Bath, and still remains in the family.
Nathan came to Boston with his father, Simon, but his mother and four sisters were left behind. When Simon sent for them some years later, his wife had died on the dock waiting for the ship, and his daughters arrived with an unknown woman who had agreed to take them. Simon and Nathan were peddlers traveling to Maine because a peddler’s license was cheaper there than in Massachusetts. Nathan liked Bar Harbor, settled there, and when he was 21, he sent for his cousin, Rosa, to become his wife. They were married in 1888 in Boston in a civil ceremony and later by a rabbi.
By 1908, Nathan had opened Standard Furniture in Bar Harbor where he had become a well-known man around town. But the family remained grounded. When a prominent town official came to visit, Rosa offered him a chair. In the midst of explaining how important he was, Rosa interjected, “Then, take two chairs.” While the family mostly thrived, one child, Sam, tumbled from a dock into the water and drowned. Nathan was away, and Rosa traveled to Bangor with the small body in her arms for a Jewish burial. The family then moved above the store on Main Street, living on the second and third floors and renting the other two floors to boarders.
Simon, meanwhile, was prospering in Bath real estate, and with the shipbuilding town booming during World War I, he persuaded Nathan and Rosa to move there and open a furniture store in 1916. Nathan became a leading member of the community and a checkers champion in his spare time. Nathan also owned other properties around town and it was in one of them where the seeds for Beth Israel were planted. The small Jewish group met in a number of venues, including a music hall owned by Nathan, until enough money was accumulated to build the synagogue in 1922. Everything was a fundraiser – including becoming a charter member of Beth Israel. Nathan was determined to bid the highest for listing on the charter, so that his father, Simon, who had by then passed away, could top the names. He got the top spot for $52.
A 2007 study of Maine Jewish history recognizes Benjamin S. Stern of Biddeford for his achievements in state government during the 1930’s, a time when other Jews could not “break the grasp” on the Protestant-controlled politics in the cities of Portland and Bangor. Terming him a “New Deal Roosevelt Democratic legislator in the Maine House of Representatives” who represented “the heavily French Catholic community of Biddeford”, it characterizes Stern as “a long-time champion for social justice”, crediting him with helping to “create laws for child labor, workers’ rights and safety initiatives, and old-age pensions.” Within and beyond the Biddeford Jewish community, Stern lent his energies to causes including the synagogue, the establishment of Israel, and Holy Cross Hospital, on whose board he served.
Born in Kovne, Lithuania on July 14, 1885 as Benjamin Chelner, he adopted his mother’s maiden name in 1900 when—pursued by Russian authorities as a Jew and a radical—he fled to London, home of his maternal uncle, father of the writer G[ladys] B[ertha] Stern. He devoured the city’s intellectual opportunities: frequenting the socialist circles of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, honing his formidable English oratorical skills on Sundays in Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner. Yet he soon departed for America, despairing of British society as incurably bourgeois and paralyzed by its rigid class system. Upon arrival in Boston, he did not seek out another materially advantaged family member, father of journalist Walter Lippmann. Rather, he started peddling linoleum from a wagon, then labored in the window-cleaning and building maintenance business, continuing in that line of employment, first in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and, by 1920, in Biddeford, for the rest of his working life. While engaged in union organizing, he met Rose Wolftraub, daughter of a rabbi from Odessa, Russia; she scandalized her family by accepting his marriage proposal in 1910.
Notwithstanding his identification as a “New Deal Roosevelt Democratic legislator”, Stern was elected to the Maine House of Representatives for its 1931-32 session, a year before FDR won the US presidency, as an Independent. He then ran and won as an Independent Democrat for the following, 1933-34, session. Once elected, he supported a resolution ratifying a proposed amendment to the US Constitution permitting Congress to regulate child labor laws, and introduced bills providing a system of non-contributing old age-pensions and regulating the wages of employees on state highways. Entirely self-educated, he wore an abundance of learning lightly, marshaling statistical evidence along with humanitarian arguments and wry witticisms in advocating for these bills.
His advisors numbered such esteemed figures as Albert Abramson (1906-1988), a Jewish economics professor at Bowdoin College and Maine’s Works Progress Administrator from 1935-37, and the eminent Socialist Norman Thomas (1884-1968). His legacy abides in the children and grandchildren of his four offspring: Arthur Stern (1912-1956), Celia Stern Peller Wilson (1913-1973), Saul I. Stern (1915-2010), and Samson B. Stern (1917-2016), two of whom he sadly outlived. He inspired them to fight for progressive ideals, human rights, and the welfare of others in their vocations and avocations.
Rita Sacknoff Willis was born in Portland on Nov. 21, 1914, daughter of Samuel and Anna Sacknoff. After graduating from Portland High School and Simmons School of Social Work in Boston, she returned to Portland with her husband Lester M. Willis, whom she married in 1936, and worked for the Federal Work Projects Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression. After leaving the WPA, she began her lifetime commitment to volunteer work. Rita and Lester were the proud parents of three sons, Stephen J., Mark A., and Robert E., Willis, who were the focus of their lives.
The full extent of Rita’s volunteer activities in Portland are too numerous to mention. Over the years, she served on a very large number of community agencies, often as a board member or officer. Rita continued a family tradition by serving as president and honorary vice president of the Portland Section of the National Council of Jewish Women, for which she was not only the president from 1955-1957, but the scholarship committee chair, chair of the social welfare committee in 1948, and a Life Long Member of NCJW.
Rita served as general chairman of the Jewish Federation Campaign and later, chaired the women’s division. She became one of the first Lions of Judah. Rita was president of Jewish Family Services for many years and helped to draft its by-laws.
As a volunteer to over 30 other community organizations, Rita understood the importance of community service. A few she felt close to were: the Counsel of Social Agencies, where she was the chairman, the Women’s Board of Temple Beth-El where she was co-president and founding member, the Children’s Cancer Program, the United Way of Maine, the Portland Symphony Orchestra, the Cornelius Sweetser Heritage Society, the Sweetser Children’s Home of Portland, and the Refugee Resettlement Committee (RRC).
She was instrumental in establishing the Hebrew Free Loan program, which continues to give financial assistance to Jews who are in need of help. She was dedicated to the provision of social services to Jews through casework and financial assistance. During her time on the RRC she aided in the resettling of Jewish Russian refugees, she had an extraordinary impact on the lives of those she served, and made lasting friends.
She was frequently honored and presented with awards for her efforts. Among these are: The Hannah Solomon Award, in 1984, from the National Council of Jewish Women. On May 21, 1984, Rita was given the key to the City of Portland and the Mayor designated that day as Rita S. Willis Day. In 1986, she was recognized by the Young Women’s Christian Association as a Woman in Philanthropy. In 1994, the Southern Maine Agency on Aging honored her with its Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1997, she was particularly proud to join other distinguished women as a recipient of the Deborah Morton Award from the University of New England. This award is given to outstanding Maine women who have made cultural and civic contributions to the state; Rita was recognized for her lifetime involvement in civic, cultural, and social causes.
She was committed to the community, as both she and her husband believed in and understood the importance of community service. That commitment manifested itself in her involvement and leadership of many service organizations in Southern Maine. Rita was a special person, a woman of intelligence, humor, energy and with a strong passion to better the world around her. She was a champion to this community and her work is visible to this day!