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VOL. 124 | NO. 250 | Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bornblum Honored with New Southwest Library

LINDA RAITERI | Special to The Daily News

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The Bert Bornblum Library, a new 69,300-square-foot building at Southwest Tennessee Community College’s Macon Cove campus, was named in a ceremony earlier this month.

Among the speakers was John Farris of the Tennessee Board of Regents, who explained that the naming of Board of Regents-governed facilities is a serious matter.  

“The honor must be reserved for individuals of recognized accomplishments and character,” Farris said. “Tonight Bert Bornblum will join the ranks of esteemed individuals … who have fought passionately for education, and particularly higher education.”

This is the most recent in a long list of contributions by Bornblum, whose formal education ended when he was 13.

Storied history

In 1985, Bornblum and his now-deceased brother, David, established the University of Memphis’ Bornblum Judaic Studies Center with a $1 million gift.

Meanwhile, the Bornblum Institute at LeMoyne-Owen College sponsors high-profile guest lecturers such as Pulitzer Price-winning novelist Edward P. Jones and others.

In 2005, LeMoyne-Owen recognized Bornblum with a doctor of humane letters degree.

Although poverty had brought an end to his yeshiva studies in his hometown of Warsaw, Poland, Baruch Zvi “Bert” Bornblum remained an avid reader with an insatiable thirst for knowledge.

After leaving school, he apprenticed in a shirt factory. As anti-Semitism strengthened in Poland, his family sought to join relatives in America, but because of immigration quotas, only the two older boys, Bert, 18, and David, 16, were allowed to emigrate.

With $10 in their pockets, the two traveled by train to Hamburg, Germany, where they set sail for America.

They were welcomed into the Pinch District home of their cousin, Oscar Makowsky, when they arrived in Memphis in 1938.

Bert Bornblum learned English at the Jewish Neighborhood House, which had been established in 1901 to help Jewish immigrants acclimate to life in America. He found a job earning $3 a week.

As the brothers received word of growing anti-Semitism in Europe, they tried harder to bring the rest of their family to safety in America, but to no avail. The family died in the Warsaw Ghetto overseen by the Nazi regime.

Philosophical ideals

Both brothers enlisted in the U.S. Army after Pearl Harbor, served with distinction, and gained U.S. citizenship.

Bert Bornblum received his GED certificate after his discharge. In 1948, he married Ethel Baer of Turrell, Ark., and in 1949, the brothers opened their first store, which was on Beale Street.

The business grew to include eight Bert’s Men and Boys Clothing Stores in Memphis and Nashville. Bert Bornblum was the first white Memphis merchant to hire black salespeople.

A member of the NAACP, he marched in 1968 under the rooftop surveillance of National Guardsmen with fixed bayonets after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

While running his business and raising two sons, Bornblum continued to satisfy his thirst for knowledge by participating in “Great Books” reading and discussion groups at Rhodes College.

For 23 years, he audited philosophy courses at the University of Memphis, and in 1997 studied at the International Summer School in Cambridge, England.

“I never went to high school,” said

Bornblum, “but I read a lot of philosophy as a kid in Poland. That is how I got my education – philosophy became my primary subject.”

Bornblum also served on the boards of Baron Hirsch Synagogue, the Memphis Jewish Federation, Southwest Community College and the University of Memphis and has been a major supporter of the Bornblum Solomon Schechter School in Memphis.

In 2002, when Bornblum joined the Southwest Tennessee Foundation board, he and his brother established the Bornblum Scholarship Endowment Fund. The brothers were recognized in 2004 with the Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Philanthropy.

“Your intellectual curiosity has been a blessing for the university,” said U of M President Shirley Raines, after Bert Bornblum honored his brother’s life with a scholarship fund. “The University of Memphis as a whole is most appreciative of your support.”

After David Bornblum died in October 2004, Bert Bornblum announced the David Bornblum Fund in Philosophy, a $100,000 bequest from his brother’s estate, and the David Bornblum Fund for the Bornblum Judaic Studies Center, a gift of $250,000.

Dr. Nancy Simco, chairwoman of the university’s philosophy department, explained that recent reductions in funding had curtailed the development of the graduate program. The Bornblums’ gift would provide money for students to attend seminars and help them get started in their careers.

Spirit of giving

In December 2006, Bert Bornblum traveled to Israel’s Kinneret College, near the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee, for the founding symposium of the David Bornblum Chair, named for his brother. The chair was established to advance scholarly research in the field of the “People of Israel in the Land of Israel.”

Bruce Feldbaum, a board member of The Bornblum Foundation, noted that although education is dear to Bert Bornblum’s heart, his contributions to Memphis entities encompass varied organizations such as the Center for Southern Folklore, Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA), the Exchange Club Family Center and the Women’s Foundation of Great Memphis, among others.

“He is an active, vibrant man with a keen mind,” Feldbaum said. “His business acumen is far ahead of others.”  

And at this month’s naming of the Bornblum Library, Southwest President Nathan Essex said, “Because of Bert’s generosity, our students are pursuing their hopes, their dreams and their aspirations for a brighter future.”

Essex then presented Bornblum with a marble plaque engraved with his image.

“This is such a beautiful building,” Bornblum responded, “a beautiful place for education. I am sure; I am convinced that students, our students, are going to be very well educated.”

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