Alexander Brest was born in East Boston on November 4, 1894. The son of Simon and Sarah Brest, Alexander, called “Alex” by his friends and family, was closest to his mother, a hard-working woman who taught him the importance of charity. Due to financial difficulties, the family moved to a farm shortly thereafter in West Action, Mass. Farm life was a tough life. The work was strenuous and never ending. One Sunday, a family friend from Boston visited the farm. He was a Polish refugee who worked as a draftsman in an engineering office. He told Alex that a surveyor could earn as much as five dollars a day. That’s when Alex decided he didn’t want to be a doctor or lawyer. He wanted to enter the civil engineering program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
In 1912, Alex graduated with honors from Concord High School and immediately began an intensive preparation for the rigorous entrance examinations to MIT, the most prestigious engineering school in the nation. Alex passed his entrance exams and by the end of his freshman year, 40% of his class could not qualify for their finals due to the competitive and disciplined atmosphere. Alex Brest was not one of them. He received the degree of Civil and Sanitary Engineering from MIT in 1916 and went to work as an assistant engineer for the Massachusetts State Board of Health the following year.
While Alex was working his first job in 1917, the United States declared war. After two of his associates enlisted in the service, Alex decided to enlist in the Army and was sent to Des Moines, Iowa for basic training. He was 23 years old. Upon completing boot training, Alex received a telegram from the U.S. War Department. It ordered him to proceed to Camp Joseph E. Johnston in Jacksonville, Fla. That telegram would prove to be the most significant one of his life. Alex was excited by the newness of the region and decided to be part of the city’s future. He worked as an assistant engineer for the Florida State Board of Health in the summer of 1921. That same year, he began his first year of professorship as an assistant professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Florida.
While at UF, Alex offered one of his students, George H. Hodges, the position of president of a company Alex wanted to start. The company, organized in 1924, was Duval Engineering & Contracting Company. It enjoyed many years of success due to Alex and George’s innovative strategies in road building. Because of their engineering experience, they were able to bring the very latest techniques to their work.
In 1953, Civil Engineer Robert M. Angas informed Alex that there was a vacancy on the Board of Trustees at Jacksonville University and invited him to join. Alex was voted in and the success of JU was sealed forever. Carl S. Swisher was then Chairman of the Board. At the first BOT’s meeting, Alex listened as Mr. Swisher stated that the University needed a paved road leading to Swisher Gym. Alex said he would donate the road from his company which began the tradition of generosity Alex would extend to JU.
In 1979, Frances Bartlett Kinne, dean of the College of Fine Arts, took over the reins as president from Robert Spiro. Kinne had a close friendship with Alex that developed years before. She invited Alex to dinner one night and explained that the College of Fine Arts was in need of better facilities in order to reach their goal of becoming accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music. Alex offered to donate $37,000 toward the goal. Soon after, Mrs. E. L. Phillips also agreed to donate the money necessary to build a new fine arts facility.
During the construction of the Phillips Fine Arts Building, it was realized there was no museum or gallery space included. There was, however, a large patio on the front and side of the building. Alex provided the necessary funds for the construction of the museum and gallery. Because of acquisitions, many from Alex’s own art collection, are in the space that includes three galleries. Kinne observed in the 38 years Alex was on the board, the construction of building after building on campus due to his generosity.
Throughout the JU campus are reminders of the role Alex has played in its success—the Alexander Brest Athletic Fields, the Alexander Brest Observatory, Brest Hall, the Alexander Brest Dance Pavilion and the Alexander Brest Museum and Gallery, which is perhaps his most important contribution to the cultural and artistic atmosphere at JU.
Alex’s generosity also extended throughout the Jacksonville community. In 1969, construction began on a permanent home for the Jacksonville Children’s Museum on the south bank of the St. Johns River. Alex donated $100,000 toward its completion. In 1974, the newest and most innovative offering of the Jacksonville Children’s Museum was dedicated. It was the Alexander Brest Planetarium. Over the next few years the museum’s name changed to reflect its expanding features—first to the Jacksonville Museum of Arts and Sciences and finally, to the Museum of Science and History.
Alex continued to contribute his time and talents to many Jacksonville community initiatives. His social calendar was filled with dates and events, gatherings and galas. Until his death, Alex labored each day in his chosen career of philanthropy. A detailed look at Alex’s life is written in the book “The Miracle Years: A biography of Alexander Brest as related to Deborah Simpson.” This book can be found at the JU library.