James H. Bryson, 84, a businessman who became an advocate for gay rights and a philanthropist who helped LGBTQ youth in the Philadelphia area, died Monday, June 10, of Alzheimer’s disease at Artis Senior Living of Huntingdon Valley.
Mr. Bryson was a successful insurance company owner in Jenkintown. His firm capitalized on a marketplace niche by insuring risks that were declined by other insurance carriers.
He was best known, though, as a pioneer in philanthropy in Philadelphia’s gay community, his family said. He gave away money to groups such as the Human Rights Campaign, creating a workplace initiative to focus on equality for LGBTQ employees at major companies.
One of Mr. Bryson’s proudest achievements was the funding and creation in 2000 of the Bryson Institute for Sexual and Gender Diversity Education at the Attic Youth Center in Philadelphia, his family said.
The center was established in 1993 in response to a growing need for a welcoming place for LGBTQ youth. Mr. Bryson was on the center’s board and gave generously to it.
He furthered the center’s impact by establishing the Bryson Institute to provide education and training about the issues facing LGBTQ youth in local schools, social service agencies, and religious organizations.
He was also committed to advancing public policy for LGBTQ people, and spent time educating and lobbying lawmakers at the state and federal level.
Mr. Bryson’s generosity grew out of personal experience.
“Jim was very much in the closet in the first half of his life, and he knew how hard that was for other young people struggling to be themselves in unaccepting environments,” his family said. “So, he was very focused on helping other LGBTQ young people avoid the kind of [censure] he felt growing up.”
Mr. Bryson was also upset by the 1998 killing of Matthew Shepard, a college student who was brutally beaten and left to die near Laramie, Wyo., because he was gay. Shepard succumbed to his injuries on Oct. 12, 1998, six days after he was assaulted.
“He said, ‘This should never happen to another human being,'” said his daughter Elizabeth Beers. “He said, ‘What can we do to support young people growing up?’ That’s how the Bryson Institute came to be."
Born in Chester, Mr. Bryson graduated from Nether Providence High School and from Bryant College in 1955, with a bachelor’s degree in business and then served for two years in the Navy. In 1957, he began working as an underwriter for an insurance company in Ohio and rose to executive posts at firms in Philadelphia and New York.
He was vice president of the Delaware Valley Underwriting Agency in Wyncote for five years before starting Bryson Associates Inc. in 1977. The company specialized in surplus lines insurance, a lucrative marketplace for risks turned away by larger insurers.
Mr. Bryson helped solidify the nascent industry by creating the first trade group, the National Association of Professional Surplus Lines Offices Ltd., of which he was president.
In the 1990s, he sold Bryson Associates to AON, a global professional services company based in London, and turned to philanthropy. In addition to gay causes, he gave to Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania and the Support Center for Child Advocates in Philadelphia.
Mr. Bryson married Elizabeth Marvin in 1966. They had two daughters, whom they raised in Jenkintown. The couple divorced in 1982.
His family said Mr. Bryson was closeted until the 1980s, when he emerged as a gay rights activist. He was a convener of the Philadelphia OutGivers and helped to establish the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Philadelphia Steering and Political Committees and the HRC National Business Council.
He was a founding member of ActionAIDS and the Delaware Valley Legacy Fund, which supports the needs of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities.
In addition to his daughter and his former wife, Elizabeth Cecil, he is survived by daughter Jennifer Alderman and four grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 7 p.m. Friday, July 12, at the William Way LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce St., Philadelphia.