By: Roberto C. Hernandez
Jerry Voorhis was many things: a progressive congressman, a wealthy philanthropist and a founder of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
For Ben O'Brien, Voorhis—who received CGU's first master's degree in education in 1928—and the Voorhis School For Boys were powerful influences. As a student at the school Voorhis founded, Ben said he learned the meaning of success, the importance of learning a trade and the power of charity.
"Jerry was a gifted, brilliant teacher," Ben says during an interview for a Cal Poly Pomona oral history project. "I said many times, and it's largely true, that what I learned in the ninth grade at the Voorhis School let me coast through Pomona College, let me coast through law school at Georgetown and stayed with me the rest of my life."
Because of the strength of his beloved teacher's ties to CGU, Ben began supporting CGU in 1995. Working with the Voorhis alumni association, Ben's generosity helped establish a fellowship as well as fund memorial plaques for three benches located in a courtyard at Harper Hall. The fellowship and courtyard are named for Voorhis, while the plaques are dedicated to Ben's brothers.
Ben passed away in November 2014. His three brothers also attended the Voorhis School.
The four O'Brien brothers grew up poor in La Verne, California. Their father had abandoned them, and their mother worked in an orange packinghouse to make ends meet. Seeking a better life for her sons, Ben's mother enrolled the boys at the Voorhis School.
Voorhis and his father founded the school in 1928 in San Dimas, California, to provide impoverished boys with an education, vocational training and employment.
Ben learned how to operate a linotype machine and grow peas. He played football and basketball. During chapel services, he says he recalls Voorhis preaching about how "being successful means helping other people and doing good for other people."
Voorhis served five terms as a democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, provided Cal Poly Pomona with its first campus, and dedicated himself to religious, social, and educational causes after he retired.
Voorhis' philanthropy—his family money funded the school—made an impression on Ben, even at an early age.
"We knew that all of the money that took care of us, Jerry could have had," Ben says. "He could have had yachts, he could have had girlfriends by the dozen, he could have been whooping it up all over the world. We knew that."
Ben and his brothers later left the school, which closed in 1939, to seek their fortunes. According to Krystle DiPaolo, Ben's niece, Ben became a lawyer and federal judge, his brother, Earl, became a law enforcement officer in the Bay Area, and his brother, Walter, became a career Army officer.
DiPaolo echoed her uncle's sentiments; Voorhis and his school were pivotal to Ben's success.
"Basically, he did so well because of Jerry," she says. "[The O'Brien brothers] wouldn't have had that, but for Jerry Voorhis. The four brothers, four families—it changed all of their lives."
The H. Jerry Voorhis Memorial Fellowship for Public Service created by Ben and the Voorhis Viking Alumni Association has changed lives. So far 15 students have received the fellowship, including Lara Kolinchak, a history student in the school of arts and humanities' Ph.D. program.
Lara described receiving the fellowship as an amazing honor.
"This fellowship encourages me to be dedicated to my studies and to acknowledge the help as I strive to complete my efforts with distinction," Lara says. "Additionally, this fellowship motivates me to strive for excellence in life and educational pursuits. This generous fellowship impacts my future directly by allowing me to take out fewer student loans as I complete my coursework. I am very grateful, humbled and encouraged to receive this fellowship."
You Can Change a CGU Student's Life
Visit cgu.myplannedgift.org to explore the many ways you can give back to the promising students at CGU. If you are interested in creating an endowed scholarship or fellowship for students, contact the Office of Planned Giving at (909) 621-8027 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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