Children lost a tireless advocate Wednesday. 

Bernice Weissbourd, 99, a researcher who built on her experience as a Head Start teacher to become a national leader in promoting the critical role of families in their children’s early childhood development, died Oct. 12 at her home in Evanston.

Bernice Weissbourd

“She lived a wonderful life,” said her friend and former colleague, Delores Holmes, a former member of Evanston’s City Council. “And oh my lord, did she make a big difference in people’s lives.”

“Thousands of families have been enriched by her ideas of having and developing a family support center,” Holmes said.

“She was an extraordinary treasure,” said Mayor Daniel Biss. “Her commitment to women, children and families is well-known, along with the extraordinary impact she had on the field and here in Evanston through her founding of Family Focus.

“But beyond that, she was a wonderful friend – kind, generous, fun, funny and righteously indignant.

“She made everyone feel welcome and at ease, from toddlers to older adults, irrespective of background and status. Time spent with Bernice was edifying and irreverent in equal measures, and I, like so many, will miss her a lot.”

She changed lives

Weissbourd was in the forefront of developing public understanding of what has since become common knowledge: that the first three years of life are critical to a child’s development and have lifelong impact.

Weissbourd went on to pioneer the idea that providing support and education for families when children are very young can make a big difference in realizing each child’s potential.

“Her work on [pregnancy] prevention both primary and secondary with teen parents, thousands more families have been touched by that, as well,” said Holmes.

Holmes was hired by Weissbourd in 1976 to develop her concepts about supporting children and families for positive outcomes. The Evanston nonprofit Weissbourd founded, Family Focus, which is still in operation at 2010 Dewey Ave., became the source of what are now national standards on how to positively impact children.

“With the birth to 3-year-olds, we saw a difference almost immediately,” said Holmes. “The impact was tremendous. … It was the honor of my life working with her and so rewarding.”

But, said Holmes, Evanston was always Weissbourd’s home.

“So many of these people, knew her by name and they still remember her today,” she said. “She was a hands-on person.” 

From the South Side to Evanston

Bernice Tag was born on Chicago’s South Side in 1923. As a young woman she studied classical piano at the Julliard School in New York and music remained a joyous part of her life.

On Oct. 31, 1946, she married Bernard Weissbourd, a scientist, lawyer, pre-eminent real estate developer and civic leader. Lifelong companions, they were devoted to family, community and progressive action. They had four children and moved from Chicago to Evanston in 1959.

Said her son, Richard: “Family was wonderfully important to her and she had a wide circle of concerns that included community. Evanston was her community and she believed you care for your community.”

When her youngest child started school in 1962, Weissbourd began her early childhood career in earnest, becoming an early childhood teacher and program director for many years before becoming a national leader in the early child development and family support movement.

In the 1970s, she worked as a researcher in a Head Start program and wrote of the pivotal experience later in a biography:

“In getting to know the children I worked with in the Henry Horner CHA housing complex, I was struck by how the personalities of the 3- and 4-year-old children seemed nearly fully formed in their uniqueness. We found that the children who were most self-confident, open and engaged with others had parents who knew the detailed aspects of their children’s needs, likes and dislikes.”

She concluded: “It seemed clear that so much of the die was cast early for these children; one could almost predict which children would lead full lives, and which would continually be ‘on the edge.’”  

Weissbourd co-founded Family Focus in 1976 to provide community-based support for families with young children. The nonprofit eventually expanded to seven neighborhood service centers and was a model for more than 20,000 programs still operating today in schools and neighborhoods around the Unites States. 

In 1981, Weissbourd was the impetus for organizing a national meeting of state and local advocates for family support, professional and academic leaders and families themselves to share their ideas and experiences.  

The Family Resource Coalition (later named Family Support America) emerged from this meeting to become the national voice for family support, with Weissbourd serving as its president.

A few years later, she was instrumental in founding Chicago’s Ounce of Prevention Fund, which used the principles of family support in its programs for teen parents. 

A national civil servant

Weissbourd’s national public and civic service included serving as president of the American Orthopsychiatric Association and vice president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

She served as a congressional appointee to the National Commission on Children and on the administration for Children’s and Families’ Advisory Committee on Services for Families with Infants and Toddlers, which established Early Head Start.   

She was also a prolific writer. She wrote a column on 2-year-olds for Parents magazine for more than 15 years and co-authored two books: America’s Family Support Programs (1987) and Putting Families First: America’s Family Support Movement and the Challenge of Change (1994).  She was a lecturer at the University of Chicago’s School of Service Administration from 1994 to 1999.

Family and community were not only professional preoccupations. Weissbourd was devoted to her family and to her extraordinary community of friends of all ages. She was known by all who knew her for her warmth and generosity, and she delighted in gathering friends and family in her home. 

“She was just a tremendous force of life,” said her son, Richard. “We have been so moved by her the last 10 years especially: the degree to which she persevered, the degree to which she stayed focused on other people and her degree of gratitude for the life she lead.”

On her 90th birthday, Richard said, his mother made it a point to talk about each of her 11 grandchildren. “She talked about things that were particular to each child and what she appreciated about each one in a moving and specific way. It really spoke volumes to who she was.”

Coming of age during years of extraordinary economic and political turmoil, she developed a keen interest in the possibilities for progressive change that guided her many political and philanthropic engagements and stayed with her until the end of her days. Throughout her life, she was committed to racial and economic justice.

She left the world better than she found it. 

In addition to Richard (Avery), Weissbourd is survived by her three children, Burt (Dorothy), Ruth Grant (Steve) and Robert (Marie), 11 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Burial will be private.

Sam Stroozas

Sam Stroozas is a reporter and the social media manager at the Evanston RoundTable. She covers small businesses, social justice and human interest stories. Contact her at sam@evanstonroundtable.com and...

Susy Schultz

Susy Schultz is the editor of the Evanston Roundtable. She has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and is the former president of Public Narrative, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching journalists and...

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  1. Bernice was a lifelong close friend of my mother’s, as were our families when growing up. My mother, Mrs. Jacobeth Postl (Ilmer) and Mrs. Weissbourd taught Music for Children together in their own program in the 1950’s affiliated with DePaul University. I have nothing but fond memories of Saturday music classes and holiday parties with the Weissbourds, especially Bernice’s hospitality, kindness, and nurturing spirit. She contributed so much. Such a legacy she has left to build upon.