At a meeting of Fortune 500 companies about a dozen years ago, a man in a blue windbreaker went around giving the corporate executives in attendance literature attacking the tobacco industry.
“Who let this outsider crash the meeting?” asked one participant at the annual meeting of Businesses for Social Responsibility.
It was Henry Everett, the left-wing champion of social justice issues and Jewish philanthropist. Everett died from stomach cancer Saturday at the age of 78.
One of the roughly 600 people who attended Everett’s funeral Monday at Congregation Ansche Chesed in New York City related the story to JTA.
“No matter where there was a group of people or businesses,” said Denise Hamler, director of the Co-op America Business Network, Everett used the opportunity to advocate for social and environmental responsibility. The network runs the Everett internship program, which places hundreds of students in public service jobs each summer.
The episode at the Fortune 500 meeting symbolized the life of a man who crusaded for unconventional causes and maintained his ethics and modesty despite the fortune he accumulated through his investments.
Everett was generous with his time and money to a variety of organizations, from National Public Radio and Teach for America to Hillel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
He also served as vice president of JTA’s board of directors, and was on the board of the New York Jewish Week.
“Henry was a real mensch. He was passionate in his beliefs without regard to their popularity,” said Mark Joffe, JTA’s publisher and executive editor. “He was guided by a strong sense of justice and believed deeply in young people and their ability to change the world. It’s rare these days to find people so principled, selfless and determined. We will miss him.”
Everett supported the emigration of Ethiopian Jewry and Soviet Jewry to Israel. He appreciated art and nature, supporting the New York Botanical Garden and the Dance Theater of Harlem, and was a proud American, maintaining it was an honor to pay taxes.
Everett took up his causes and took on his opponents — most notably, the tobacco industry — even if it meant risking his social standing and confronting powerful institutions.
Attending board meetings or participating in conference calls, Everett would peruse mounds of reading material while maintaining his attention to the discussion at hand, friends and colleagues said.
Constantly clipping articles about social injustice, he would mail them to a large numbers of people with handwritten notes urging their attention or feedback.
Many said they couldn’t think of Everett without also thinking of his wife, Edith.
“He and she defined ‘couple’ in the way it was meant to be,” said Yeshiva University president Richard Joel, the former president of Hillel.
Asked to summarize her father’s message, Carolyn Everett spoke about both her parents.
“They really stood up for things,” she said in an interview. “They were always ahead of their time.”
They shared an office — he as an investment adviser, she as a broker — and a belief in helping those less fortunate. In fact, the Brooklyn-born and -bred couple’s second date was a lecture by Norman Thomas, a Socialist candidate for president.
The Everetts’ politics often put them at odds with the mainstream — like the time the couple took on one of New York Jewry’s heavyweights, the Tisch family, over tobacco.
As a member of the UJA-Federation of New York, Henry Everett stridently and unsuccessfully protested the choice of James Tisch, whose Loew’s Corporation owned Lorillard Tobacco, to head the Jewish federation in the late 1990s.
They even were escorted out of a 1982 General Assembly of the North American federation system for pushing for aliyah of Ethiopian Jewry when other American Jews and Israelis belittled the idea.
Everett maintained scrupulously high standards in his business and foundation life, instituting the first performance standards for local Hillels, for example. He maintained the same standards in his private relationships, friends and colleagues said.
Watching Everett taught Matt Grossman, executive director of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, “how to listen, how to care,” Grossman said.
“You learn about integrity when you’re around Edith and Henry,” said Grossman, who used to work at Hillel.
“The only thing they did lavishly was their philanthropy,” he said, noting that despite their wealth, the Everetts often traveled by Greyhound or Amtrak.
Carolyn Everett only realized the family was wealthy when she saw a blueprint of a school her parents were sponsoring in Israel.
The secret to the family’s financial success was Henry’s research and hard work, Edith Everett said in a booklet prepared by Hillel, which honored the couple at a dinner two months ago.
Starting out as a market researcher for Abraham and Strauss Department Stores, Everett would work until the early hours of the morning. He knew it was time to go to sleep was when his neighbor, a butcher, started his day’s work at 3 a.m.
Everett attended Yeshiva of Flatbush and Columbia University, at a time when Columbia maintained quotas for Jews.
Everett entered the retail industry because it was easier for Jews to find work, but he ultimately started his own investment firm.
In a eulogy Monday, New York state Sen. Seymour Lachman asked those present to perpetuate Everett’s legacy.
“We incorporate his dedication and his energy and passion for justice using our skills,” Lachman said of Everett, “so today will be better than yesterday, and tomorrow will be better than today.”
In addition to his wife and daughter, Everett is survived by his son David and grandchildren Elias, Ethan and Hannelora.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.