The Giving Face of Competition: Honoring the Goodman Brothers

We never met Robert Goodman and Irwin Goodman personally.

By the time we moved to Madison, the two brothers had retired from Goodman's Jewelers, which they owned and operated on State Street in Madison, WI from 1938 until 1998.

But it’s hard for Madison residents not to feel as if they knew the Goodmans. Even in retirement, they remained involved in nearly every aspect of the community. Anyone who has resided here has likely been touched by the philosophy that the Goodman brothers held: “Be kind and honest to people.” And they found a way to put their values into action by becoming incredibly successful businessmen–then returning nearly every last penny to the Madison community in the form of philanthropic gifts.

What is perhaps most intriguing about their personal history is the influence that athletics and competition had on their life’s work.

Much has been written about Robert and Irwin Goodman, because much is owed to them as a debt of gratitude. A partial list of their contributions to the greater Madison community includes: over $2 million for the Goodman Community Pool, the first-ever public pool in the history of the city; $600,000 for the Goodman Aquatic Center at the Goodman Jewish Community Campus, along with 154 acres of land for the campus valued at $1.5 million; $250,000 to establish the Goodman Rotary Senior Fitness Fund, which today enables over 5,000 seniors over the age of 55 to participate in community health and fitness classes; re-construction of the women’s softball complex at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; construction of a 3-mile running path along Lake Monona; and funding of the “Dial-a-Dietician” nutrition program at Meriter Hospital.

Notice a trend?

Athletics, fitness, and health were paramount to the Goodmans. Irwin Goodman was a member of the track and field team at the University of Minnesota in the late 1930s when he visited Madison for a meet and fell in love with the city. He took over a Madison jewelry store branch owned by his family, and was soon joined by his younger brother Robert “Bob” Goodman. Robert was a renowned athlete in his own right, a softball and baseball outfielder inducted into the Madison Sports Hall of Fame in 1981 who served on the National Olympic Committee.

The pair lived frugally and healthfully, sharing both a modest apartment on State Street and a penchant for simple vegetarian meals. Perhaps as a consequence, they lived long and full lives – Irwin passing away in September, 2009 at the age of 94, and Robert in April, 2010 at the age of 90.

They never married. When they rebuilt the UW women’s softball stadium, Steve Morrison, executive director of the Madison Jewish Community Council, reportedly quipped that it was “the only diamond they ever gave a woman.” They never had children, but as Irwin toured the Goodman Community Center in Atwood – to which they had donated $2 million – he is reported to have delighted in seeing children play and grow there, stating, "the best exercise for the heart is bending down to lift a child." Their family was their community.

On June 11-13, 2010, Madison celebrates Goodman Weekend to honor the humble, inspiring brothers. But as we pause to reflect and realize the influence that two individuals can have on an entire city, it is worth realizing just how much the discipline, camaraderie, and competition of athletics played in their success.

Most  news stories on the Goodman brothers include a photo of the pair in their later years, in which they bear wide grins and shocks of white hair. But a family portrait showing a young Robert and Irwin Goodman with their parents, Belle Abrahamson Goodman and Robert D. Goodman, allows a glimpse of them as young men: towering over their parents, shoulders broad, looking as if they would be at home on a football field. A 1937 news release by the athletic department of the University of Minnesota references Irwin Goodman’s contributions to the track team, where he was “expected to handle the shotput event capably” at an April meet, and announced to the roster for the Big Ten Championship in May.

In 1937. During the midst of the Great Depression, with the Spanish Civil War raging….when Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated into his second term as President of the United States….and Amelia Earhart disappeared on a worldwide flight attempt….and the unemployment level in the U.S. reached 17 million.

In 1937, in the midst of an economic meltdown, two brothers decided to manage a business using the same discipline and teamwork they had relied on in athletic competition to grow wealth that they then gave freely to the community. If philanthropy was a competitive event, they would have taken home first place every time.

There’s a little bit of the Goodman brothers in all of us. What will your legacy be?

In the true spirit of the Goodmans, we invite you to support Focal Flame Photography “Honoring the Athlete” contest winner Darren Fortney and a team of ultra-swimmers as they raise funds for Gilda’s Club Madison, a community resource for cancer patients and their loved ones. You can click here to donate online, and here to find out more about Gilda’s Club in action. And stay tuned for coverage of fundraising efforts from other local athletes and contest winners.


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