Philadelphia millionaire Stephen Girard, dying childless in 1831, left his fortune to build Delaware Ave. and other public works - and especially to Girard College, the city-administered free school for orphans which still occupies the 40-acre walled compound Girard designed for it in North Philadelphia.
"The Stephen Girard story is too often focused through the prism of the 1960s civil rights struggle to integrate Girard College," Cohen says. (Cohen was law clerk to the judge who ordered the formerly all-white school to admit blacks, and part of his talk summarizes the long litigation to defend Girard's will against other heirs - and to break it, so blacks and girls could go to Girard.) "His story, however, is much more complex..." (From Cohen's prepared remarks about Stephen Girard's career:)
Born in France in 1750, Girard was a sea captain and entrepreneur who arrived in Philadelphia on June 6, 1776, just a few days before Thomas Jefferson started writing the Declaration of Independence...
The first known sign of Girard’s sense of civic responsibility occurred in the summer of 1793. Philadelphia experienced a yellow fever epidemic. Philadelphia’s upper class fled the city in droves. Washington left, as did Governor Mifflin. Only those who could not afford to leave stayed, including a few leaders... People were shocked when Girard said he would take charge of Bush Hill, the private home taken by the city as a "go to die" hospital. Stephen Girard had such a promising future. Why would he risk his life in this way, people wondered?
He truly marched to his own drummer. I think Girard was more focused on what his wealth enabled him to do for others than on its size. That attitude is something every student of his school and every citizen of his city and his country can carry forward from his life.