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When Tom Goldsmith Talks About His Extended Family, He Means Nearly 200 Boys

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On Father’s Day this week, Tom Goldsmith, a 57-year-old Buffalo, N.Y. businessman, will become a dad for the eighth time. And that’s no mean achievement for someone who has never married. But then, quiet-spoken though he is, Tom can make a fair claim to being America’s first and foremost bachelor father. Over the past 25 years he has opened his life and home to nearly 200 troubled teenage boys. About 150 stayed for a weekend, an opportunity to be in a home rather than an institution. Forty-four of them became his foster children. Of those, seven have chosen to take his name through legal adoption.

That last number will go up one more when, at a special ceremony this Sunday in a local judge’s office, 16-year-old Tony Setteducato becomes the newest Goldsmith. Tony’s parents live in the Buffalo area, but he was wanted by neither. A street-wise kid, he bounced around the youth shelters until the State Youth Division placed him with Goldsmith last year. The two hit it off and, just before Christmas, Tom offered to adopt. “At first I thought he was crazy or just joking around,” Tony recalls with a laugh. “But he’s a pretty nice guy, so I decided to do it.” Says Tom of Tony: “He’d been floundering all those years. Now he’s got a home.”

Tom Goldsmith has been saying that about his boys since it all began in 1956. A volunteer then for the Junior Chamber of Commerce’s Youth Activities Division, he was persuaded by a judge to take a 16-year-old orphan home for the Christmas season. The boy, named Robert, had been accused of swiping a candy bar in a drugstore. “He didn’t say anything except ‘yes’ and ‘no’ for two weeks,” Tom remembers. “I didn’t know how to cope with it. Finally, on Christmas morning, when he opened his gifts, he actually cried because he felt he wasn’t worthy of being given gifts.” Thoroughly moved, Tom invited the boy back for Easter, and the judge in Robert’s case suggested that Tom, though unmarried, consider adopting. “It’s never been done before,” he told Goldsmith. “We can make a test case of it.”

So it was, though not quite in the way Goldsmith expected. After the news of the trailblazing adoption spread, he was bombarded by dozens of outraged letters and phone calls. “People said it was unnatural for the boy. They accused me of being gay,” Tom says. Later, when some local PTA members spread rumors about him, Tom marched into a meeting, tore up his membership card, and announced, “I don’t need people like you.” Says Erie County Family Court Judge Victor Manz: “Tom has compassion and sympathy. And he’s definitely a straight arrow.”

Undeterred by the flap, Tom put his first adopted son through college. (Today, married and with three children of his own, Robert is a district manager for Avis.) After him, Goldsmith found no shortage of other boys who needed his help. Through court and school referrals, Goldsmith welcomed new arrivals—a maximum of three at any one time—into his four-bedroom home in suburban Buffalo. No distinctions are drawn. Among his foster kids over the years have been one black, a Jewish boy, a Seneca Indian and two Taiwanese. Of the seven he has already adopted, three are Catholics and four Methodists. (Tom is himself a Roman Catholic.)

Each prospect for Tom’s one-man Boys’ Town must agree to a set of guidelines in advance. “I ask him what he thinks is reasonable,” Goldsmith explains. “We agree on a curfew and what kind of education he’ll get. On Saturday mornings the boy must clean his room and one other room or do outdoor chores. Every day he must read the front page of a newspaper. Once a week each boy must make a meal, and not a packaged meal.” Also, no drugs or booze other than beer in the house, monthly hair trims, ties and jackets when eating out, no friends—male or female—in bedrooms. Tell Tom a lie, and it’s instant goodbye. Each boy gets an allowance (usually $7 a week) and he buys his own shampoo and cigarettes.

While some boys last barely a weekend, others stay with Tom for months and years before leaving for college, for marriage or simply to move on. As a mark of his trust, Goldsmith gives each departing adopted or foster child a house key. Only once has he returned to find the home ransacked. Still, he hasn’t changed locks in 10 years.

“Action, not words,” is Tom’s motto. His tough approach rates respect from the boys, along with some groans “because he’s so organized.” Admits adopted son Barrett Lee Goldsmith, 25, “If Tom hadn’t picked me up, I’d be in a gang right now.” Adds Mike Ayers, 17: “He’s sort of like a father, but he makes me feel like an equal. I’d be out in the cold without him.”

“There have been boys,” laments Goldsmith, “who didn’t want to conform to the basic rules of family life.” His two worst cases involved “a 14-year-old who told me he was about to be a father. I was flabbergasted!” and a 1975 incident when one of his boys was accused of assault. The charge was dropped, but the lawyers’ fees cost Goldsmith $8,000. “It nearly killed my nest egg,” he notes.

“A lot of kids have tried to use Tom,” says Craig Palaszewski, 24, who spent a year with him. Still, Goldsmith is philosophical. “I realized a long time ago I couldn’t expect a perfect batting average,” says Tom, who claims a “darn good” (about 70 percent) success rate in turning troubled kids around. His own informal Goldsmith Association, composed of his kids, backs him up; its files are bulging with letters from his alumni, now scattered around the globe, who have become lawyers, engineers, businessmen, government employees and military servicemen.

Goldsmith, born in Erie, Pa., cut short his studies at Northwestern University for Navy service in the Pacific during World War II. He eventually retired with the rank of commander. While overseas he was engaged to a young woman in the Philippines who was killed in a swimming pool accident. Heartbroken, he returned to Buffalo and eventually took over his father’s tool-and-die company. Today Tom is owner-president of the firm, which has more than $2 million in annual sales. His now widowed mother, aged 80, lives nearby and helps out with the cooking for Tom’s ever-changing brood.

As the holder of several dozen parenting and volunteer service awards, Tom offers some advice on the care and raising of teenagers:

“It’s important to get to know your child between the ages of 12 to 16. If you don’t make any headway with kids in those years, you never will. Two or three hours in a week’s time is good. It’s the quality of the time that’s important. Try to be a companion on their level. What is a major problem to them may be seen as a joke by an adult, but you mustn’t laugh. And remember, kids like to brag about their fathers, so give them something to brag about.”

“As long as my health holds out, I think I can continue to handle it,” adds Tom. “But about five years down the line, I may think the age spread between me and the teenage kids to be too great. I won’t be able to relate to their problems. Then I want to be free as a bird, maybe go out West and go fishing.” He pauses and smiles. “I already make out like a bandit on Father’s Day. I won’t be lonely when I’m 65.”