Samuel and Mary Feldman Kaufman immigrated separately to Brooklyn, New York, from Romania. They married in 1909 and had five children, Nathan, Saul, Art, Mildred and Rose. They moved to Pittsburgh in 1918. By peddling linens door-to-door, Mary Kaufman helped her husband open a grocery store at 1319 Clark Street in the Hill District.
Nathan H. “Nate” Kaufman (1910-1993) studied architecture at Ralston Junior High School and attended Fifth Avenue High School but left before graduating. He earned a general equivalency diploma in 1989, after completing coursework at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work. He worked at a variety of jobs in his youth, including as a grocery clerk, vacuum cleaner salesman, photograph retoucher, and a two-month stint as a pony groomer for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He worked for Frank & Seder Department Store and the Kaufmann Department Store print shop.
Kaufman taught himself how to swim as a child while playing in the pool at the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House. At fourteen, he saved a man from drowning at Oakmont Beach. “I can still recall the man pleading with me as he thrashed about the water. He had been robbed and thrown in the creek to drown,” Kaufman told the Pittsburgh Press in February 1975. “When I got him to shore, I wondered how many more people didn’t know how to swim.” The incident inspired Kaufman to become a swimming instructor. He passed the Junior Life Saving Examination in 1925 and the Senior Life Saving Examination in 1927. He worked for the Irene Kaufmann Settlement, first as a junior counselor at the Emma Farm Camp starting in 1925 and then as assistant athletic director and swimming coach from 1929 to 1938. During those years, Kaufman gained a reputation as a coach, an athlete and an inventor of aquatic games. He competed in a marathon swim at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, published the book Water Games and Stunts in 1935 and wrote the “Splashes” column for various trade publications.
He had a longstanding interest in water rescue. He maintained a file documenting accounts of “Unique Drownings” from around the world. While volunteering with the American Red Cross during the 1936 St. Patrick’s Day Flood, Kaufman rescued 40 families in the Strip District. He was hospitalized after his boat capsized on the final trip.
Kaufman joined the staff of the Allegheny County Department of Parks in 1938. That year, as part of the County Sesquicentennial Celebration, he directed “Aqua Ballet,” which was billed as the largest amateur water show ever staged. The following year, he produced a two-hour water show at the Young Men and Women’s Hebrew Association called “Aqua-Treasure.” The show included “a cast of forty-five young men and women, including singers, musicians and actors, all first-rate swimmers.” He topped that performance in 1941 with “A Night in the South Sea Islands,” featuring a cast of 60.
During World War II, Kaufman served with the American Red Cross in the China-Burma-India theater of operations. He started out managing recreational facilities for enlisted men, rose to program director in 1943, and then to regional director in 1945.
Upon returning from the war, Kaufman worked briefly for the Allegheny County Department of Parks and then for the Honus Wagner Company. From 1947 to 1960, he was director of the Health and Physical Education Department at the YM&WHA and its Laurel Y Camp. He worked for several private resorts in the early 1960s before returning to the YM&WHA from 1963 to 1966. He was the manager of the Chatham Center Health Club, working under Chatham Center Inc. president Leon Falk Jr., from 1966 to 1977.
Throughout his career, Kaufman volunteered for youth organizations, particularly those focused on the underprivileged or physically disabled. “Seldom in the history of this commonwealth has one man labored so unselfishly toward the advancement of our youth,” the Pennsylvania Senate wrote in a 1960 resolution honoring Kaufman’s work.
He is a member of the Pennsylvania Swimming Hall of Fame and the Jewish Sports Hall Of Fame of Western Pennsylvania, which gives an annual student award in his memory.
In 1930, Kaufman married Sarah Zapler. They had four children, Mildred, Irene, Ralph and Wayne. After Sarah Kaufman died in 1977, Nathan Kaufman married Esther Levine.