ROBERT BORTHWICK ADAM. At the time of the death of the late Robert B. Adam, men spoke of him as the foremost citizen of Buffalo. The very fact of such a characterization is proof of its justice. Honors of the conventional kind are often the result of circumstance, and social prominence may be due to the mere accident of ancestry or wealth. But when by common consent any man is termed the first citizen of a great community, the meaning of such a tribute is unmistakable.
Mr. Adam was born in Peebles, Scotland, February 4, 1833. His father was the Rev. Thomas Adam, and his mother, Isabella Borthwick. The childhood of Robert B. Adam was that of a typical Scotch boy. When only ten years old he left school and went to work in Edinburgh, where he lived until 1857. In 1855 he married Grace Harriet Michie.
In 1857 Mr. Adam left Scotland for the United States. He first settled in Boston, where he remained ten years. In 1867 he removed to Buffalo, and the same year organized in that city the great dry-goods and mercantile house of Adam, Meldrum & Anderson, a firm with which his name was thenceforth identified. To this memorable commercial enterprise he brought a business intellect unsurpassed for clearness and scope, a calmness incapable of being shaken from its poise by any exigency, and the Scottish pluck and distinctively Scottish devotion to duty which enabled him against every obstacle to make his way in a strange land.
Unusual as were Mr. Adam's abilities as a merchant, his philanthropic and municipal activities are perhaps his truest titles to fame. Of the many interests with which he came in contact, it is probable that the welfare of the Young Men's Christian Association in Buffalo was the most deeply grounded in his solicitude. It was in 1879 that he first became a Director of the Association, serving in that capacity until 1886, when he was chosen Trustee. In 1891 he was again elected Director and in 1897, President, continuing in all these positions till his death. He was Chairman of the Building Committee, which in 1883 erected the first Association building, and in 1903 was Chairman of the Building Committee which erected the present Central Building. Mr. Adam's connection with the Y. M. C. A. may best be characterized by saying that he was the emergency man of the movement. Freely, unsparingly, he laid his munificent money gifts, his admirable business talents, his time, strength and experience on the altar of the cause. He was pre-eminently the friend of young men. He saw in the Y. M. C. A. a practical project for offering to young men safe companionships, cheerful surroundings, education, religious instruction and honest enjoyments.
As President of the Merchants' Exchange, Mr. Adam had the honor of inaugurating in 1888 the project of abolishing the deadly grade crossings. The same year the Legislature passed an. Act creating the Grade Crossings Commission. Mr. Adam was Chairman of this Commission from the time it became an organized body till the day of his death, and until he was stricken with his last illness he was energetically engaged in its work. In his capacity of leader of the movement to do away with the grade crossings, Mr. Adam's attitude has been aptly described as that of an aggressive compromiser. He was always determined, ever insistent, never hot-headed or borne away by feeling. The public trusted him and the corporations recognized his justice. The occasion demanded tact, and he displayed that quality in full measure. His urbanity soothed impetuous tempers and his approachableness made discussion easy. When occupying the chair of the Commission, his rulings were notable for their fairness and good sense. In giving opinions he exhibited one of his most marked characteristics - that of committing himself to no views till he had made a searching inquiry into the facts. It was observed of him by one of his fellow commissioners that his suggestions were based on such thorough examination and study that the mere statement carried conviction.
Mr. Adam's work as a student of literature, connoisseur and collector would have been noteworthy even had his activities been confined to these fields. He corresponded with many men of learning on both sides of the Atlantic, and this pursuit was among his chief enjoyments. An ardent admirer of Dr. Johnson, he was the possessor of the finest known collection of Johnsonian, and was never weary of searching for memorials of that great scholar, author and philosopher. His array of rare editions of Robert Burns and of the poet's original manuscripts was deservedly famous. That art had a place in Mr. Adam's life was proved not only by his patronage of noted artists, but by the fact of some of his most highly prized manuscripts were written by the hand of Ruskin. Mr. Adam also had other manuscript collections of men of literary fame. His library was extensive and unique. It covered the choicest realms of literature and was known to the literati of two continents. He was a large contributor to educational and charitable institutions, was a trustee of the Buffalo General Hospital, and an active member of many benevolent organizations. He was President of the Chamber of Commerce, and a trustee of Cornell University. He was a prominent member of St. Andrew's Scottish Society, and preserved the tender remembrance of the Scotch town in which he was born and especially of the church in which his father officiated as a minister.
Mr. Adam was a member of the First Presbyterian Church on the Circle. He was a man of deep religious convictions, and one who carried the precepts of his faith into the practice of daily life. He was a gentle, conscientious and just employer. Toward those who were in his service he felt a genuine friendly solicitude, and they in turn regarded him as one who had their best interests at heart. It was felt that the passing from this life of Robert B. Adam, June 30, 1904, left a void impossible to fill. The undertakings which bore witness to his disinterested devotion seemed stricken and helpless, and it was realized that the community had lost a citizen who was, in the truest and best sense of the words, a leader of men.
SOURCE: Memorial and Family History of Erie County New York; Volume I