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As founder of the Old Newsboy Goodfellows Fund a century ago, James J. Brady set in motion a family tradition to care for the less fortunate that has been upheld by generation after generation.

This morning, Brady's descendants will station themselves on the downtown corner of Fort and Griswold streets, just as their predecessor once did, to hawk papers so that no child will go without on Christmas morning.

Without fail, every generation of Bradys has performed this family tradition on the Monday morning following Thanksgiving since December 1914 — that's 100 consecutive years without interruption.

"It's almost a surreal experience," says Frank J. Brady Jr. who, along with his cousin Frank J. Brady (yes, their names are identical, which is why the second Brady goes by "F.J." ) and their respective families stand in the very same spot where their great uncle once sold newspapers as a boy. "It used to be his corner, way back before there was even a Penobscot Building. And, now, it's our corner.

"It's a great honor to be part of this history. I don't know a Brady who doesn't have a heart."

James J. Brady was said to be inspired by a Detroit News cartoon titled "The Boy He Used to Be," which portrayed a well-to-do businessman carrying Christmas gifts for the poor and walking hand-in-hand with a former version of himself: an impoverished newsboy dressed in rags.

Born in 1878 in Corktown among the poorest of the poor, Brady overcame the odds and became a successful businessman. By the turn of the century, he'd risen through the ranks to become a plant manager for the carmaker Ransom E. Olds. Brady also served as a tax collector for the IRS, and as a member of the Detroit Water Commission ("when," as F.J. Brady cracked, "it was an honest job").

Aware of families' struggles to put food on the table, Brady asked then Detroit News managing editor E.J. Pipp how he could help kids. Pipp suggested contacting the Detroit Newsboys Association, a group of successful businessmen who were once newspaper boys. Brady asked them to return to the street corners and sell papers "for any amount you care to pay" so that poor kids would still believe in Santa.

In December 1914, the goal was to raise $400. In case they fell short, Brady withdrew $400 from his bank account. He needn't have worried. Close to 75 Old Newsboys brought in a total of $2,275, enough to buy toys for 3,379 kids.

A century later, some 300 Old Newsboys now rake in more than a million dollars a year. The do-gooders with a soft spot for kids are dignitaries (like former Mayor Dennis Archer, several retired judges and police chiefs) and regular folk, too, many of whom received a Goodfellows Christmas and are now paying it forward in earnest.

This year, 35,000 boxes filled with toys, clothes, books and dolls will be provided to kids ages 4-13 in Detroit, Hamtramck, Highland Park, Harper Woods and River Rouge. For most, it is the only Christmas their parents can give them.

Nine years after James Brady founded the Goodfellows, he died of a heart attack at the age of 47. His brothers, Joseph W. Brady and Frank J. Brady II, took up the torch, along with other notable families that both Brady cousins insist receive equal billing. Among them: the Michaelsons, the Camdens, the Stutzes and the Guthards.

About 80 percent of the funds are raised through letters the Old Newsboys send every year to family and friends. The mailing lists are hot commodities. When an Old Newsboy dies, that mailing list is often bequeathed to the next generation of Newsboys. Thus, F.J. Brady's mailing list came from his father, whose list came from his father.

In kind, every generation adds more names of benefactors. "Between myself and my son Patrick," said "F.J." Brady, "we mail out 500 letters every year."

To mark the 100th anniversary, the Images of America series has published "Old Newsboys' Goodfellow Fund of Detroit: 100 Years," a retrospective in photos that is a testament to how even the most stoic of businessmen are so moved by the thought of a forgotten child on Christmas morning they will do everything to prevent it from ever happening — for a hundred years and counting.

While a few things have changed over the decades, the spirit of giving is alive and well. Introduced in 1924, dolls are included in the gifts. There are now 11,000 dolls, each hand-dressed by people so eager to volunteer there is a waiting list.

Gifts used to be delivered by police officers to the families' homes. Now, the packages are dropped off at distribution centers, where parents can pick them up so they can be wrapped and underneath the tree on Christmas morning.

Last year while handing out boxes at a distribution center, Frank Brady said a girl about 7 years old came in with her mother. She took one look at the box and asked hopefully: "Is there a doll in there?"

Without saying a word, Brady winked at her. He knew she understood because when she was walking out with her mom, she turned around and blew him a kiss.

Brady, a 66-year-old GM retiree, was besotted. "If that happens once a year, it's worth a hundred years of effort," he said.

Rest assured, the Brady cousins say the future looks bright. "F.J." Brady's son Patrick, 39, who serves on the board of the Goodfellows, presented his dad with his first grandson a little over a year ago. "His name is James Brady," says a very proud grandpa. "So we figure the organization is in good hands for another hundred years."

mkeenan@detroitnews.com

How to help

Make a tax-deductible contribution to the Goodfellows Fund of Detroit at detroitgoodfellows.org, or by mail to P.O. Box 44444, Detroit, MI, 48244.

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