Group has grown by remembering A girl's life ended in 1956, but her memory lives on because of her friends' enduring devotion.

Posted: February 03, 2008

More than a half-century after Lynn Saligman lost her life in a fire at her family's Merion home, her childhood friends haven't forgotten.

Saligman was 12 in 1956 when she and her parents died while preparing to flee the blaze. Yet acts of kindness in her name continue.

The girl's friends formed a group to give purpose to their grief. Since 1957, the Lynn Saligman League has raised $2 million for Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

"Her death left a hole in our hearts," said friend Roni Feierstein, 64, of Penn Valley, who was with Saligman the day before the fire. "We'll never be over it."

Saligman's friends will remember her on Feb. 14 as they dedicate the sale of chocolates and jewelry to their long-lost Valentine.

A pretty girl with wavy brown hair and a ready laugh, Saligman was the daughter of a wealthy textile executive and his wife.

She excelled in school and loved to invent games in Merion Park. She attended summer camp with Feierstein. At various times, she had a Great Dane and a poodle.

That last afternoon, Saligman asked Feierstein over to the family's Tudor-style home on Latmer Road. The two explored an upstairs bedroom that was being redone; paint cans, oily rags and furniture were everywhere, Feierstein recalled.

"She was complaining about the smell of the oil paint," Feierstein said. "I told her, 'My dad's going to pick me up. Why don't you come home with me for dinner, and my dad will drive us to school in the morning?' "

Saligman chose to stay home, and so was there the next morning when a smoky fire, later traced to a heater in the disheveled bedroom, enveloped the house in fumes.

Firemen found the girl and her parents, Lillian, 42, and Martin, 45, dead of suffocation in a front bedroom, where she had gone to wake them, newspaper accounts said. A brother and sister had moved out and were spared.

Saligman attended seventh grade at Bala Cynwyd Junior High School, now Bala Cynwyd Middle School. On the day of the girl's death, her fellow students heard the news at a special assembly.

"I don't think I was a kid again for a long, long time," Feierstein said. "They didn't have grief counselors in those days."

Shattered by their loss, about a dozen of Saligman's friends wanted to do something to keep her name alive, said Deena Goldstein, 64, of Bala Cynwyd. So, on Nov. 17, 1956, they held the first meeting of the Friends of Lynn Saligman, complete with elected officers and minutes.

The adviser was Leah Zitin, Saligman's aunt. Now 89, she still lives in Bala Cynwyd.

The girls held raffles, bake sales, record hops, bingo games and carnivals. They chose CHOP as recipient, to help other children whose lives might be saved, and to ease the worry felt by the children's parents.

In 1958, the friends raised $593, which went toward aspiration machines for tuberculosis patients. An additional $635 paid for six hospital beds and night tables, plus a warmer for 24 bottles, a league history said.

As the friends grew, so did the scope of their projects. The group sponsored a Sammy Davis Jr. concert, a golf classic, and a black-tie, tailgate gala linked to the Philadelphia Auto Show.

Their gifts to CHOP grew, too. Among them were $250,000 for an MRI system, $50,000 for research on a nerve disease and, more recently, $50,000 for "Reach Out & Read."

The program provides books for children at doctor visits, pediatrician Sharon B. Sutherland said. Members gathered Jan. 14 to pack the colorful books in cartons for delivery to six CHOP primary-care centers, five in Philadelphia and one in Burlington County, N.J.

Most projects are carried out by a core of 30 to 50 members, but the grown daughters of some are signing up, creating a second generation. The 154 members come from Philadelphia, Delaware and Montgomery Counties.

Steven M. Altschuler, the hospital's president and chief executive officer, praised the league's efforts during 50th anniversary ceremonies in October.

"To every member of the Lynn Saligman League over the past 50 years, I offer my sincere thanks and heartfelt congratulations," he said.

Joni Blum, 56, of Huntingdon Valley, a league copresident, recalls the day she learned of Saligman's death. Her parents and Saligman's parents were close friends.

"We were driving to New York. It must have been on the radio. I remember my parents stopping the car and turning around," Blum said.

"When I became the age that I was allowed to join [the friends], it was not a question. It was a priority."

Contact staff writer Bonnie L. Cook at 610-313-3006 or bcook@phillynews.com.

Saligman League Fund-Raisers

As a Valentine fund-raiser, the Lynn Saligman League is selling Lore's chocolates for $15, and a pin in the shape of three children holding hands for $55. Sales benefit Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. To order, contact Bailey White at events@email.chop.edu or call 267-426-5339.

On May 12, the Lynn Saligman League will host its annual Golf Classic at the Huntingdon Valley Country Club. Call White for more information.

For information on the league, visit giving.chop.edu/partners and link to Support Our Partners, or go to www.lynnsaligmanleague.org. The latter is under construction.

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