Remembering Herb Fithian, the Lifelong Friend who Enabled the Forman S. Acton Foundation to Thrive

Without Herb Fithian, there exists a timeline in which the Forman S. Acton Educational Foundation is never created. A timeline in which the Acorn Fund, Forman Scholars, and more aren’t possible.

But thanks to Herb Fithian, who passed away this September at the age of 94, and the deep friendship he formed with Forman Sinnickson Acton, the lasting mission of the Foundation was made possible.

Herb Fithian (pictured left in the photo, alongside his wife Katsy and Forman Acton) grew up in Bridgeton, about 15 miles from Salem City, where Forman Acton was born. Their two families had been friends for some time and naturally, because of the frequent time they spent together, Herb and Forman became lifelong friends. In fact, both Herb’s and his wife Katsy’s parents were close with the Actons. Their family friendships are what kept the group close throughout the years.

After high school, Herb served in the Infantry during World War II, earning a Purple Heart for a wound he suffered in combat. Meanwhile, Forman served in the Army Corps of Engineers. Eventually, Forman would go on to earn his doctorate in mathematics from Carnegie Institute of Technology. He would help the Army develop the world’s first anti-aircraft missiles and became a pioneer in the evolving field of computer science. However, even during all their travels, maturation and Herb starting his family, the two men remained as close as ever. As he got older, Forman was even a regular at Fithian family’s dinners, bringing plenty of conversation along with him.

For Herb, family was most important. It’s part of what Forman and others admired most about him, said family friend Ravi Sethi. Whenever he and friends would visit Forman’s cottage alongside Woodmere Lake in Salem, Herb would talk about his wife, Katsy; their children, Kathryn, Megan and Herb III; and their six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

“Herb cared deeply about family,” Sethi said. “He is one of the more generous people I’ve ever known. Whenever we would visit Herb, he would always take my daughter on a tractor ride throughout his property. She looked upon him and Katsy as her own great-grandparents.”

Herb’s deep compassion for the people around him was part of his identity as a father, a friend, and a man. If his children or grandchildren had a goal or a dream, he would help them figure out how to make it happen. If they had a wish, he would help them achieve it. And when anyone close to him found themselves in a difficult situation, it was Herb they’d call to help them through it.

Throughout his life, Herb was committed to helping all kinds of people in ways both big and small. For years, he would write bi-weekly letters to support the efforts of Amnesty International and the fight for human rights. Herb cared for many people in the community who needed help and support but had nowhere else to turn. In almost every case, Herb was there to lend a hand or lead the way.

Even as his own children aged and moved away from South Jersey, Herb remained devoted to the small Southern New Jersey community. He loved his home – a hospital during the Revolutionary War, his garden, and inviting friends to Roadstown to explore and talk about everything from the changing world around him to his love of books, music, literature, and the outdoors.

“Despite the injury, he incurred in the war, Herb was always very skilled with his hands. He was very mechanical and also a talented sailor,” said Sethi. “He would take us out on the lake often when we visited and show us how it was done. He always enjoyed doing fun activities whenever we came by his home.”

But even with his affection for his hometown, Herb was also an avid traveler. He loved how exploring the globe gave him the opportunity to discover people, places and things he only read about back home. Often, it was his friend Forman who would help him plan his travels,  including the ones each grandchild took with Katsy and him to the countries of their choosing. Herb and Forman were a perfect match.

After more than three-quarters of a century of friendship, in 2009, Forman asked Herb to be the executor of his will and told Herb he’d like to donate money to help children from his hometown but wasn’t sure how. As a generous man himself, Herb suggested that his daughter, Kathryn Fithian Markovchick, help Forman craft a plan to benefit Salem youth. Kathryn had a PhD in education and suggested that funding college scholarships and educational programs to support scholars would be the perfect fit to ensure Forman’s wealth would help those in Salem continue their educational journeys.

For four years starting in 2010 Kathryn and Herb convinced Forman to donate anonymously to help Salem students by providing an annual $10,000 scholarship to a select Salem High School graduate. In 2014, when Forman passed away at age 93, he did so without coming to a final decision on how to help Salem’s youth for the long-term. His existing will was drafted years prior by his attorney and proposed to put his wealth in a trust with Herb as sole trustee. However, Herb realized that if they did that, nearly half the money would be spent on taxes and not allow Forman to make as much of an impact with his legacy. There needed to be another way.

In October of 2014, New Jersey courts decided that Forman’s wishes would be better honored by creating a foundation independent of the Salem School System. It would provide ongoing scholarships directly to high school students and fund educational programs to benefit Salem’s youth with initiatives like college savings accounts. Today, that wish exists in the form of the Forman S. Acton Educational Foundation.

“Forman intrusted my father to ensure his wish to create advanced educational opportunities for students like him, those who are high achieving but do not have the financial resources he had, was fulfilled,” Kathryn says of the partnership. “My father and I were privileged to be able to accomplish this through the establishment of the Foundation as Forman’s permanent legacy for the benefit of supporting the educational aspirations of the youth of Salem.”

Today, Forman Acton’s legacy lives on because of the support, guidance and lasting friendship he had with Herb Fithian.

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