Food for Thoughts

Joe Kirman’s career—and retirement—is a testament to helping students flourish on full stomachs

One evening in early April of 1968, Joe Kirman — a teacher at a special service school in New York City — debated whether to accept a professor position in the University of Alberta’s Department of Elementary Education. He made up his mind at about 10 p.m., when his wife woke him up and told him Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated.

“The school I was teaching at was in a depressed neighbourhood with predominantly African American students, and there were riots going on in New York City at the time. My principal there was walking around with a plainclothes detective as a personal bodyguard, and we thought, all hell’s gonna break loose, so I was on the phone the next morning to the U of A.”

That dark day led to a bright U of A career for Kirman, one that spawned a social studies textbook used across Canada that went through four editions and 194 published papers researching elementary education — including one on using “birds as a teaching tool for geography.”

It also brought him up close with the Campus Food Bank, which provides meals for students who aren’t in a position to provide for themselves. As a professor, Kirman didn’t “see the students in that position because they’re not going to let [me] know,” but he knew enough to donate to it regularly over the decades. When he retired, Kirman eschewed the customary department gift and asked those who would have chipped in to donate to the food bank instead.

But retirement only seemed to make Kirman more giving, so he established his first fund with Edmonton Community Foundation under the Edmonton Jewish Community Charity Fund — and then he established six more (including one to support Edmonton’s Food Bank).

Kirman says he established the fund for two big reasons. “The first is that I liked the idea that long after I’m gone, this favorite charity of mine is going to be getting money. And the second is that I had a friend — his name is Zane Feldman, he was a philanthropist — and his motto was ‘Give while you live so you know where it goes!’”

And as an orthodox Jewish person, Kirman says “it’s considered a mitzvah, a righteous act, to do whatever you can with your money to try to make this world a better place to live in. So this dovetails with my religious philosophy.”

This story comes from the Winter 2023 edition of Legacy in Action. Read the full magazine.