Irving Rimer, who as a visionary public information executive with the American Cancer Society from the late 1950s through the 1980s was a leader in the hard-fought battle against the tobacco industry that helped dramatically reduce smoking rates in the U.S., died Oct. 14 in Chapel Hill, N.C., after a brief illness. He was 93 years old.
Mr. Rimer began his career with the American Cancer Society (ACS), in New York City, in an era when the media were dominated by tobacco industry advertising that glamorized smoking. Nearly 60 percent of adults smoked.
With scientific studies linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer, Mr. Rimer’s department launched a public information campaign on the dangers of smoking. Mr. Rimer enlisted Tony Schwartz, the media guru, to create, pro bono, the first in a series of arresting anti-smoking TV spots that set a new standard for public service announcements. The spot showed a little boy and girl dressing up in their parents’ clothes. The voiceover: “Children imitate their parents. Do you smoke cigarettes?”
In the mid 1980s, Mr. Rimer, who was by then the ACS vice president for public information, brought to the networks an animated spot showing a fetus smoking a cigarette – as a warning about smoking risks during pregnancy. ABC showed it on the evening news. Upset over the controversy the spot was generating, Mr. Rimer’s executive director asked him not to share it with state affiliates.
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“I called up our warehouse and urged them to distribute the spot immediately,” Mr. Rimer wrote years later.
Upon Mr. Rimer’s retirement in 1988, C. Everett Koop, the U. S. surgeon general, wrote him that the “success of the American Cancer Society over the last 30 years has been greatly furthered by your efforts at shaping its image and important role in the fight against cancer.” Dr. Koop credited Mr. Rimer with being instrumental to the success of the annual Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking.
Irving Rimer was born May 25, 1921, in Salem, Mass., the second son of David and Sarah Rimer, immigrants from Lithuania. David Rimer worked long hours at his small dry cleaning and tailor repair shop down the street from the family’s house, putting away money for his children’s college educations.
Mr. Rimer graduated second in his class at Saltonstall High School in 1939 and went on to Bowdoin College, where he nurtured what became a lifelong passion for public speaking, the poetry of Robert Frost and Albert Schweitzer’s Reverence for Life. He was less interested in mastering the third year of Greek required for graduation, and though he remained loyal to Bowdoin, he transferred in his junior year to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
He graduated with a degree in sociology in January 1943 and enlisted in the Army a month later. As a medic with the 63rd Division, 253rd Infantry Regiment, he saw active duty in Germany from the fall of 1944 through the war’s end. He was awarded a Purple Heart for a shrapnel injury and the Silver Star for bravery for running through enemy gunfire to treat a wounded soldier and wait with him until the battle eased. He was credited with saving the soldier’s life.
Returning to Salem after the war, Mr. Rimer was admitted to the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Social Services Administration for fall, 1946. Waiting to begin his studies in Chicago, he enrolled for a semester at Boston University’s School of Social Work in January 1946. One of his classmates was 19-year-old Joan Engel, from the Bronx. They were married on Christmas Day, 1946, and began their lives together in Chicago, where Mr. Rimer earned a master’s degree in social work.
He started his career as the public information director for the local Community Chest in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. – where the young couple had the first two of their three daughters -- and in Worcester, Mass.
In 1955, after the birth of their third daughter and with help from the GI Bill, they bought their first house, in the new suburb of Levittown, Pa. Mr. Rimer soon joined the ACS and began commuting from Levittown to Manhattan. He enjoyed the train ride - the camaraderie, the chance to read the New York Times (he did the crossword puzzle, too).
On weekends, he took his family to the library and swimming lessons, to plays, movies and museums. He played tennis with his daughters. He rode the waves with them on vacations to Salem, Mass., and, closer to home, the Jersey Shore. He learned to sail. His first mate was Joan.
He never stopped expressing his gratitude. Every year on his wife’s birthday he wrote her a love letter. “Whatever I’ve achieved, it’s because of you,” he wrote when they were both in their 80s. Year after year, he wrote: “Thank you for being my wife. Thank you for making my life.”
He retired from the ACS in 1988, and in 1992 they moved to Fearrington Village, outside Chapel Hill, N.C. They traveled, joined a book club, formed close friendships with other transplanted retirees. They audited classes together in art history, literature, religion, music and anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Mr. Rimer played the clarinet he had taken up in boyhood and wrote his memoir for his family.
Volunteering at UNC Hospital’s Burn Center, he worked with the chaplain, Shirley Massey, to start what became an annual Celebration of Life reunion for former patients who were burn survivors.
In 2006, Mr. Rimer and his wife followed their friends from Fearrington Village, several miles down the road, to Carolina Meadows, a continuing care community. Joan died in May 2012. Irving continued to pursue learning. He read widely, helped start a play-reading group and kept up with the poetry club. He gave talks on the anti-smoking crusade, extended himself to friends and spent time with his daughters.
He is survived by his daughters, Barbara, of Chapel Hill; Elizabeth, of Westport, Conn, and Sara, of Brookline, Mass.; his sons-in-law, Bernard Glassman and George Schott, and grandchildren, Paul and Julie Schott.
Donations can be made to the UNC Jaycees Burn Center – online medicalfoundationofnc.org/giving/ways/memorial or to the Medical Foundation of NC, Inc., 880 Martin Luther King Blvd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514. Please note that the gift is to the Celebration of Life Event, UNC Burn Center, in memory of Irving Rimer.