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Florence Heller

1897 – 1966

by Judd Kruger Levingston

Florence Grunsfeld Heller, who became a social worker, volunteer leader in Chicago, and benefactor of Brandeis University, was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on March 2, 1897, the daughter of Ivan and Hannah (Nusbaum) Grunsfeld and the granddaughter of Albert and Heldegarde (David) Grunsfeld. Her parents and grandparents were German immigrants who came to the United States in 1873, settling in the territory of New Mexico. Her father was a wholesale merchant. Her initial years of schooling in Albuquerque were followed by years at Bradford Academy in Boston, Massachusetts, and the Faulkner School for Girls in Chicago, Illinois. In Chicago, at age sixteen or seventeen, Florence Grunsfeld lived with her maternal uncle, Julius Rosenwald—the founder of Sears Roebuck and Company—and his wife. Florence Heller’s son Peter credits the Rosenwalds with instilling in her a strong devotion and sense of obligation to society.

According to a family legend, Florence met her future husband, Walter E. Heller, at a formal dance when he was wearing a purple tuxedo. Walter Heller was chair of the board of Walter E. Heller and Company, a firm in the financial industry. They were married in Chicago on February 22, 1917, just before Florence turned twenty. They had three sons: John Andrew, Peter Eugene, and Paul Walter. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1953.

Heller’s primary activities as a philanthropist and organizational leader were in Chicago. As a volunteer in the 1920s, she served individuals in need of relief at the United Jewish Charities in Chicago. Not long afterward, she became involved with settlement work, serving new immigrants to the United States through the Jewish Peoples Institute. From 1923 to 1941, she served as president of its women’s auxiliary.

During World War II, her activities extended beyond the Jewish community, leading her to work with the United Service Organizations (USO) in helping to provide ancillary services to American servicemen both in the United States and overseas. As chair of the management committee of the Central USO Club of Greater Chicago, she led one of the most active branches of that organization.

The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography links Heller’s “intense interest in social welfare work” with her involvement with the national Jewish Welfare Board (JWB). From 1948 to 1964, she was vice president; from 1964 to 1966, she was the president. She represented the JWB to the United Nations Conference Group of Non-Governmental Organizations. Her New York Times obituary recognizes her as the first female president of a general national Jewish organization.

The JWB offered a forum for Heller’s growing interest in the training of aspiring social workers. She helped to establish a research center for the JWB in conjunction with Brandeis University and served as a trustee there. In 1959, she concretized her commitment to the training of social workers in the gift of a million-dollar endowment to found the Florence Heller Graduate School for Advanced Studies in Social Welfare at Brandeis. She also served as a trustee of Brandeis University.

In Chicago, her philanthropic inclinations also found a home in an endowment for the Florence Heller Isotope Laboratory and the Florence G. Heller Blood Bank at the Louis A. Weiss Memorial Hospital. She was also a member of Chicago Women’s Aid, Mother’s Aid to Chicago Lying-In Hospital, Infant Welfare of Chicago, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Field Museum of Natural History.

She contributed to the international Jewish community through her membership on the board of the World Federation of Young Men’s Hebrew Associations and Jewish Community Centers. As an early supporter of the Jerusalem YM-YWHA, she attended the groundbreaking ceremonies there in 1964. She served as treasurer and board member of Sinai Temple in Chicago.

Florence Heller died in Chicago, on January 5, 1966.

Bibliography

AJYB 68 (1967): 528; Heller, Peter E. Correspondence with the author, September 26, 1995; National Cyclopaedia of American Biography (1969); NYTimes, January 6, 1966, 27:4; July 10, 1976, 26; July 11, 1976, 45; and July 12, 1976, B2; WWIAJ (1928, 1938); WWIA 5.

8 Comments

any photos of Mr. Walter E Heller? thank you Ellen Emerson - see below.

I was wondering.....are there any photos of Walter E. Heller and Florence?   I have looked to see if I could one of Mr. Heller back in the 60's when I worked for him.   I have written several notes below - Ellen Emerson   He was a special person in my life and I would love to have a photo to show my husband, etc.     Thank you!    I remember his silver hair and a cigar!      Ellen Emerson

  

My name is Ellen Emerson now....I was Ellen Weeks when I worked for the Walter E. Heller corp. beginning in 1963. I knew both Walter and Peter. I had just turned 18 when I started working for the company and I am 71 years old today! I worked at the reception desk just out side Mr. Walter Heller's office. This was back in the days when we heard the elevator open we would get up and go take his coat from his shoulders and follow him into his office to hang his coat in his closet. I enjoyed working there! He was sort of a quiet, serious gentleman but he would always smile at me and ask how I was doing that day. He was delightful! This was the Walter E Heller I knew...... 105 West Adams St. I have very fond memories of working there. I believe Larry Foerester was in the same office.

I am one of 4 grandchildren from her son Peter Heller. He died today June 11. 2012.

I am sorry to hear about Peter Heller passing away in 2012. I worked for his father, Walter E. Heller back in the early 60's at 105 West Adams. Please see above message. thank you.

I am so sorry to hear of his passing. Barukh dayan emet.

Florence was my grandmother. I am the son of Paul W. Heller. Unfortunatly she passed away years before I was ever born but having read the above I am very proud to be a Heller. I do not know much about the Heller side of my family but it is becoming far more interesting the deeper I delve.

Hi Chase and Dana, I hope you are still reading this chain of replies. I am the son of Edward Heller who was orphaned at the age of 7 years old. His father, my name sake was Raymond J Heller. Do you know if there may be a relationship at all? I am working on our genealogy. Thank you for your kindness.

How to cite this page

Levingston, Judd Kruger. "Florence Heller." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 26, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/heller-florence>.

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