From her height of barely four feet ten inches, Myra Dreifus had to stand on a stool
to reach the podium, but her message—"You cannot educate a hungry child" —was eloquent
and her crusade for funding "Needy School Children" eventually brought school lunches
and other crucial programs to Memphis.
Born (1904) Myra Finsterwald, to German-Jewish parents in Detroit, Michigan, she married
Fred Dreifus, and they moved to Memphis in the 1930's to start a jewelry business.
In Detroit, she had an important volunteer job at the head of a Big Sisters Agency,
where she learned to manage volunteer groups. When she moved to Memphis, she continued
working as a volunteer, establishing a summer camp for children at Ridgeway Country
Club. Realizing that there was no mental health association in the city, she re-established
an old agency that had languished for years. Always involved in learning, in the 1930's
Dreifus organized a women's group—informally named, with tongue in cheek, "Culture"—to
study topics of general interest. Her interest in children and in the arts led her
to become chairman of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra's Children's Concerts.
Dreifus led the group that created Riverview Day Care Center and worked with Op-Act
to provide supervised after-school activities for inner-city latchkey children. In
1968, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., she led the Fund for
Needy School Children Steering Committee to mobilize the city in the creation of a
summer job and scholarship program for teens; months of intense lobbying prompted
the City Council and the County Court to fund a $200,000 grant which paid off at least
a hundredfold in a quiet summer and effective education programs.
Before her death in 1987, Dreifus received many honors, among them, the Humanitarian
Award by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the prestigious Hannah G.
Soloman award, and an honorary doctorate from Rhodes (then Southwestern) College,
where she served on the President's Council.
Dr. Joan Weatherly
Image courtesy of University of Memphis Libraries, Special Collections.