Walkabout: Gracious and Generous Giving, Part 1

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Read Part 2 of this story.

I recently wrote about the history of Brooklyn’s YMCA. In the course of the research, I came across the stories of two remarkable women whose generosity knew few bounds.

Ladies who, by the force of their personalities and the power of their purses, made the lives of so many people so much richer, both here in Brooklyn, greater NYC, and around the world.

They weren’t Brooklyn ladies, but they were here so much, they should have been. They were also fast friends, one’s cause was often championed by the other, and they remained the closest of friends throughout their lives.

Their names were Miss Helen Miller Gould and Mrs. Russell Sage.

Miss Helen Miller Gould was the eldest daughter of financier and railroad baron Jay Gould. She was born in New York City in 1868, the first of Jay and Helen Gould’s six children.

Helen became her father’s favorite child, and in anticipation of her one day being heir to his vast estate, he made sure she had an excellent education under private tutors.

He had her enroll in New York University Law School, where she graduated in 1895, a rarity for women at this time, especially society women.

Helen Gould, as the daughter of one of America’s richest men, could probably have married well and disappeared into the society world of the Gilded Age, at the turn of the century, but she chose another path.

Her mother died in 1889, her famous father in 1892, with her at his side at Lyndhurst, the family’s estate in Tarrytown.

At his death, she inherited millions, and while her sister and brothers went out into society, most of them spending money wildly on penniless European aristocratic husbands, gold digging wives and the usual lavish living, Helen devoted herself to charity and philanthropy.

Contemporary and later accounts tell us that she was plain, a bit dumpy, and totally uninterested in society. She was interested in philanthropy, patriotism and religious causes.

She didn’t marry until she was 45, marrying a railroad man named Finlay J. Shepard in 1913. The couple adopted three children, including an eldest son who had been an abandoned child left on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1914.

They adopted another foster child, and eventually adopted two of her brother Frank’s daughters. Her philanthropic ventures became her life.

Earlier, in 1898, the Spanish American War broke out, and she donated $100,000 to the US government for supplies, and would later give another $50,000 for hospitals and supplies.

She personally worked in those hospitals, treating and tending the wounded.

She opened up Lyndhurst to the local community, taking in the impoverished, children and their families, and she opened a fresh air charity in Tarrytown for physically handicapped children.

Helen Gould was one of the first female vice presidents of the American Bible Association. She was most interested in religious causes, and gave generously to churches, schools, and the YMCA.

Gracious Giving -- Brooklyn History

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The Sands Street YMCA for sailors at the Brooklyn Navy Yard was her gift to both the Y and to the Navy.

The building was the most elegant and best equipped YMCA in America, and cost $500,000 to build. It opened with much fanfare in 1902.

She was also a strong supporter of New York University, and its Law School for Women.

She established the Gould Memorial Library at NYU’s Bronx campus in 1901, this building, designed by Stanford White, containing the famous Hall of Fame of Great Americans. This complex is now part of Bronx Community College.

Helen Miller Gould Shepard would continue to give freely of her money and time until her death, from a stroke, at Lyndhurst, in 1938.

Throughout most of her public appearances, she was accompanied by her best friend, and fellow philanthropist, Mrs. Russell Sage. They were such good friends that she named one of her daughters Olivia after Mrs. Sage.

The ladies were present together on most of the dedications and presentations, including the ones for the Sands Street Y. They shared a love of giving, as well as a common social standing, and together did much good for many people.

Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage had a very different early life than her friend Helen Gould. Her own background was impeccable, she was a descendent of Miles Standish, of Mayflower fame.

She was forty years older than Helen Gould, having been born in 1828 in Syracuse, NY.

Her family lived in genteel poverty but she was well educated at the Troy Female Seminary, and became a teacher and advocate of education for girls and women, and would always be dedicated to the field of education.

When she was in her 40’s, she became the second wife of financier Russell Sage, a business partner of Jay Gould. He was originally from the Troy area, where she may have caught his eye.

They married in 1869, moving into his mansion on 5th Avenue and 39th Street, where he had lived since 1863. Olivia must have first met Helen Gould when she was but a child, but their paths would cross much later.

Next time: Mrs. Russell Sage, one of the greatest philanthropists of the twentieth century.

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