Gamm on: The Humanist interview with Philanthropist Gordon Gamm.

Author:Bardi, Jennifer

Jennifer Bardi: You grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana. How did your upbringing influence your embrace of a humanist philosophy?

Gordon Gamm: My father was a lawyer. Unlike some parents, he really encouraged me to be outspoken and to even disagree with him, and he respected my opinion on what I considered to be right or wrong. He would tell me about cases first-year law students would read and then ask me to be the judge and tell him how I thought the case should be decided. So early on I was taught to think about "fairness" and how judges decided to reach fair decisions in resolving conflicts without reference to God.

Also, growing up Jewish at a time shortly after the Holocaust, I think there was a lot of emphasis on critical thinking and on accepting the fact that we were the minority in a majority Christian nation, which meant that we had to think independently about morality.

It wasn't until I went to college at the University of Michigan and started studying philosophy that I learned about humanism. It struck me as really interesting that religion, Christianity in particular, was such an important component of our society and also how the Bible was in many ways out of touch with the morality that we live by.

JB: You yourself pursued a career as a lawyer and were successful at that. Can you talk about the type of law your father practiced and how it shaped your sense of justice?

GG: My dad was severely disabled. He had gouty arthritis--one of the worst cases they had seen at both John Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic. He was in a lot of pain during his lifetime and had several toes and fingers amputated. Still, he never lost sight of wanting to help people who were less fortunate. When he started in law practice he wasn't only disabled by his gout--he was also disadvantaged by the anti-Semitism of the time. He was at the top of his class in law school and on the law review, but wasn't able to get a job with one of the major firms, which would be more or less automatic today if you were at the top of your class.

My grandfather had declared bankruptcy during the Great Depression, and so Dad didn't have very much money and he also had a family to take care of. He built his law practice by volunteering to represent criminal defendants who couldn't afford a lawyer. This brought him recognition in the community, as his cases were reported in the newspaper. Most of his clients were black defendants who were charged with serious crimes--murder, rape, assault, battery--for which they might face the death penalty. He became a lawyer of last resort for defendants the public was inclined to prejudge as guilty, and he passed along to me a sense of social engagement and appreciation for helping people. I saw that Dad really loved the law as a vehicle for helping people who were less fortunate, were seeking compensation for being victims of another's fault, and so on.

JB: I want to get into the role that activism and philanthropy can play in the humanist project, and how humanists don't always get credit for these actions. You've funded numerous arts projects, political causes, and done philanthropy in many other areas as well. Let's talk a little bit about art first. Was art an important part of your childhood? And what do you see as the overarching role of art in a civil and just society?

GG: I was a pretty good musician through high school. I was the first chair trumpet player in the school band and was also student conductor. I also play the piano by ear. Music inculcated a sense of being able to think outside the box. I love jazz, for example, which takes a lot of innovation and resourcefulness.

I think that the arts enhance the quality of our lives by providing another dimension to our worldview. Some people are very successful in business and have a knack for making lots of money...

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