Ernest Kent Coulter – Lieutenant Colonel, United States Army


“….make the little chap feel that there is at
least one human being in this great city who
takes a personal interest in him, who cares
whether he lives or dies.”
— Ernest Kent Coulter


Born: November 14, 1871 Columbus, Ohio
Died: May 1, 1952 Santa Barbara, California

In 1904 Ernest K. Coulter, a clerk in New York Children's Court, spoke to a local men’s club on behalf of the children he saw every day. Forty volunteers responded and the first organized activities of what would become Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America were underway. Today Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America (BB/BSA) is comprised of 483 independent agencies with over 2,500 professionals and 15,000
community leaders together serving over 110,000 youth and their families. It is based on the unique concept of a one-to-one relationship between an adult volunteer and child who can benefit from the friendship and guidance provided by the volunteer.

Ernest Coulter is considered the official founder of BB/BSA. Welfare activist, journalist, lecturer, author, advocate for children’s rights are all titles under which Coulter provided years of service to others and gave the nation the organization that today is one of the most influential groups in providing love and guidance to many of Americas forgotten young people.

Ernest Kent Coulter was the son of a physician and his wife. After a boyhood life in Columbus, Ohio, Coulter began a career in journalism in 1893 with the Pittsburgh Dispatch, eventually becoming the tri-state editor for the publication. In 1897, he transferred to the New York Herald, serving as a war correspondent in Cuba and Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War. From 1900 to 1902, Coulter served as the assistant city editor for the New York Evening Sun.

Appalled by the suffering and misery displayed by the thousands of children who passed through the court each year, Coulter helped organize New York's first Children's Court in 1902. Specifically created to deal with juvenile cases, the court was created to address the increasing numbers of poor, indigent immigrant youths who were moving through the court system. Coulter became clerk for this special court serving under Judge Julius M. Mayer.

On December 27, 1902, Judge Mayer announced that he had secured the promises of ninety of the city’s most influential men, each of whom promised to befriend one boy who had appeared before his court. Apparently, such efforts and acts as this influenced Coulter. The philosophy of the Big Brother Movement – a responsible adult helping a child through a one-to-one relationship – was born from the agreement
secured by Mayer.

With this idea in mind, Ernest Coulter delivered a revolutionary speech before The Men’s Club of the Central Presbyterian Church of New York, using these words as part of his talk: “There is only one possible way to serve that youngster (who is in trouble) and that is to have some earnest, true man volunteer to be his big brother, to took after him, help him do right; make the little chap feel that there is at least one
human being in this great city who takes a personal interest in him, who cares whether he live or dies. I call for a volunteer.”

At the turn of the 20th Century, the American media was exposing the harsh conditions many children were exposed to, particularly in large cities. Issues confronting youth and children – poverty, inadequate schools, delinquency, crime and especially absent parents – convinced people that change was needed. Coulter’s inspirational speech changed the lives of children everywhere. That evening, forty members of the club volunteered to become a big brother to a youth who needed help
to overcome a stressful situation. With this pledge, the Big Brother movement began and from this group of volunteers, the national organization of the Big Brothers of America was created to provide mentoring to young people in need.

The child mentoring movement had its roots in the late 19th century with “friendly visitors” who would serve as role models for children of the poor. In 1904, Coulter’s new movement used “big brothers” to reach out to children who were in need of socialization, firm guidance, and connection with positive adult role models. The resulting program, originally called “Big Brothers”, continues to operate today as the largest mentoring organization of its kind.

While serving as the clerk in Judge Mayer’s court from 1902 to 1912, Coulter completed his law degree in 1904. In 1908, Coulter was elected president of the Big Brother Organization in New York. The organization functioned by having a full-time representative present in the Children's Court. If the judge felt that a boy could be helped by a Big Brother's influence, the judge would turn the boy over to the representative. The representative would subsequently assign a permanent Big Brother to the child.

In 1912, Coulter resigned from his post at the Children’s Court and entered private practice in New York City, where he handled the legal phases of child protective work.

His contributions to the Big Brother Movement, however, did not cease. In 1914, Coulter embarked on a nationwide lecture tour to promote Big Brother organizations. Many of Coulter’s other activities also had an objective similar to that of Big Brothers. For example, the Protestant Big Sisters organization received their charter from the New York Supreme Court on June 7, 1912. Coulter served as their attorney and legal counsel and played a major role in the creation of the Big Brother Big Sister Federation.

In 1914, he was also appointed general manager and assistant to the president of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and continued this position through his retirement in 1936.

In 1917, Coulter was elected as the honorary president of the Big Brothers Big Sisters Federation. Additionally, Coulter was active in other children’s protective movements. He was a charter-organizer of the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America. He was an official of the Federated Boys' Clubs. Before World War I, Coulter launched a campaign against drug abuse. Entering military service, Coulter served in the American Expeditionary Force in Europe and attained the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Committed and dedicated to bettering the lives of humanity, Coulter served variously as a director of the American Humane Association, a member of the legislative committee of the New York State Convention of Human Societies, and as trustee and later honorary trustee of the New York State Humane Association. In 1931, he was elected as an honorary member of the Council of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children of England.

Equally active in many other welfare movements, and determined to make a difference, Coulter lectured throughout the country on subjects dealing with children’s rights. From the experience he had gained in judicial proceedings, Coulter recognized the correlation between adjudicated youth and poor surroundings lacking mentors. He saw that, with encouragement and one-on-one tutelage, young people could experience a life change.

In honor of his founding of the Big Brothers of America, and his years of service to the organization, Coulter held the position of honorary life time president. In addition to this lifetime achievement, Coulter authored two novels, “The Children in the Shadow” and “The History of Child Protection.”

True retirement seemed impossible for Coulter. Late lifetime endeavors included serving as director for the Art League of Manatee County, Florida, as well as membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; the Military Order of the World War; the Veterans of Foreign Wars; the American Legion; the New York Society of Military and Naval Officers of the World War; the Ohio Society of New York; the Ohio State University Association; Beta Theta Pi; the Silurian, and the Amen Corner.

Ernest Coulter lived a life of purpose. Each passion, each pursuit, focused on one singular mission, the mission to better the lives of humankind, especially the youth of America. With the founding of the Big Brother’s of America, Coulter changed the lives for America’s youth – past, present, and future. He provided disadvantaged youth with something others did not, a chance. “I dwell in possibilities,” wrote Emily Dickinson. Ernest Coulter lived and worked with possibilities, then turned them into realities.

The current organization, Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, is the oldest mentoring organization serving youth in the country and remains the acknowledged leader in the field. BB/BSA currently serves over 100,000 children and youth through more than 500 agencies throughout all of the United States.

BB/BSA programs across the nation continue to provide screening and training to volunteer mentors and carefully match the mentors with “little brothers” and “little sisters” in need of guidance. A recent 18 month experimental evaluation of BB/BSA’s mentoring practices found that mentored youth were less likely to engage in drug or alcohol use, resort to violence, or skip school. In addition, mentored youth were more likely to improve their grades and their relationships with family and friends.

Ernest Coulter died on May 1, 1952 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


  • DATE OF BIRTH: 11/14/1871
  • DATE OF DEATH: 05/01/1952
  • DATE OF INTERMENT: 05/09/1952


  • DATE OF BIRTH: 03/10/1876
  • DATE OF DEATH: 11/30/1963
  • DATE OF INTERMENT: 12/11/1963

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