Benjamin Joseph Altheimer Sr. (1878–1946)
Benjamin Joseph Altheimer Sr. was a lawyer and philanthropist who was known as a “real trailblazer” in promoting agricultural research and education in Arkansas. He created the Ben J. Altheimer Foundation, which has provided funding for civic, legal, and agricultural endeavors.
Ben J. Altheimer was born on September 30, 1877, in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), the only son of Joseph and Matilda Josephat Altheimer. He had one sister. His parents were German–Jewish immigrants who were members of Pine Bluff’s Congregation Anshe Emeth. Joseph’s brother Louis had brought him to Pine Bluff, where he had established and operated a mercantile store. The two brothers became land developers and, together, founded the town of Altheimer (Jefferson County).
Ben Altheimer was educated at the Jordan Academy of Pine Bluff and studied law with Pine Bluff attorneys F. G. Bridges and Judge W. T. Wooldridge. With another Pine Bluff attorney, Major N. T. White, he formed the law firm of White and Altheimer. While visiting relatives in Chicago, he met Belle Mandel, daughter of Simon Mandel. With his three brothers—Solomon, Leon, and Emanuel—Simon Mandel formed the Mandel Brothers department store, which became one of the city’s large, prosperous firms. The couple married on December 14, 1903, and their only child, Benjamin Jr., was born in 1904. Altheimer continued his work in Pine Bluff until 1909, when the family moved to Chicago. Around 1915, he established the law firm of Altheimer, Mayer, Woods and Smith, which became one of the city’s prestigious firms. He retired as head of the firm in 1939. (The firm, later known as Altheimer and Gray, dissolved in 2003.)
Altheimer served many years as general counsel and secretary to the Mandel Brothers firm and was elected vice president of the company in 1945. He was active in the Iroquois Club, Chicago’s oldest Democratic political club, and twice served as its president.
After moving from Arkansas to Chicago, Altheimer maintained a home in Pine Bluff and often visited the Jefferson County area. Many prominent Arkansans were his personal friends, such as U.S. senator Joseph T. Robinson. During his frequent visits to the state, he began buying land and farms, especially those his father had earlier lost in the Altheimer area after the economic downturn of 1893. In the early 1930s, he renovated an old plantation house on the Collier Estate and made it his Arkansas home; he named it “The Elms.” He accumulated more than 15,000 acres of land in Arkansas, mostly in Jefferson County, and some 25,000 in Louisiana. Altheimer became vitally interested in agriculture and brought the latest technologies to his efforts. He had efficient co-workers and sharecroppers. Altheimer created the Ben J. Altheimer Foundation in 1942. Funds from this were used in the city of Altheimer to build a clerical and machine trade school, a technical school building, and a Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts building.
Altheimer died of a heart attack on May 28, 1946. He is buried in the Jewish Cemetery in Pine Bluff. However, the foundation he created continued to help the residents of the city of Altheimer. It provided two college scholarships annually for top Altheimer high school students, plus provided extensive funds to Altheimer public schools and churches. Foundation funds came from the farming operations.
The Ben J. Altheimer Foundation endowed faculty chairs at several institutions, including the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), which covered cotton research and development, soybean research, and weed science. The foundation provided funding for the Altheimer Laboratory Agricultural Experiment Station at Fayetteville. It also funded the Ben J. Altheimer Law Library in Pine Bluff and the Ben J. Altheimer Courtroom at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law. The foundation established a Ben J. Altheimer Lecture Series to bring lawyers and legal scholars of national repute to speak at the UALR Law School. The Ben J. Altheimer Foundation was terminated in 1995 and was succeeded by the Ben J. Altheimer Charitable Foundation, Inc.
For additional information:
Arkansas Jewish History Collection. Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. Central Arkansas Library System, Little Rock, Arkansas.
“Ben J. Altheimer Succumbs.” Arkansas Gazette. May 30, 1946, p. 10A.
Dedication Program for the Altheimer Laboratory Agricultural Experiment Station, University of Arkansas. Fayetteville: October 31, 1980.
Dedication Program for the Ben J. Altheimer Law Library, Jefferson County Courthouse. Pine Bluff, AR: April 29, 1981.
Kinzel, Bruce. “Altheimer Praised for Fostering Study in Agriculture Field.” Arkansas Democrat. December 16, 1986, p. 2C.
Parker, Suzi. “Law School Commemorates Benefactor.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. June 23, 1993, p. 7B.
LeMaster, Carolyn Gray. A Corner of the Tapestry: A History of the Jewish Experience in Arkansas, 1820s–1990s. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994.
Carolyn Gray LeMaster
Pulaski County Historical Society
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My grandmother was Ruth “Cookie” Altheimer, housemaid to the Altheimers at the Elms House. She was recognized by the name Cookie by her relatives, whom she worked for. Her Jewish descendants were from Germany; they left her behind to move back to Germany because family over there was in trouble with the Hitler regime. They are believed to have been lost in the Holocaust.
My father is the late Bishop Tommy Lee (T. L.) Westbrook, Cookie’s son who was sired by a black Native American. My father held his office for more than 36 years, and left us with the legacy of the first chief justice for the Churches of God In Christ, Inc. Before his passing last October, he gave me all the history he could remember, leaving me behind to find the rest.
Grandma Ruth was a blues singer in the Pine Bluff area, traveling with a great pianist whom I believe was either her brother or her cousin by the name of Joshua Altheimer.
Ruth “Cookie” Altheimer’s only two children were Willie Beatrice (daughter) and Tommy Lee (son).
Very interesting. I just found out that this person is my great-great-grandfather. I can see he was a great man.
Several Altheimer Elementary students were recently featured in a book called The School of Dreams. The book featured the dreams and goals of talented young people and mentioned how the Altheimer Foundation’s giving program helped me to receive a chemical engineering degree from UA in Fayetteville.