Lifes little circle: Former Little Brother now heads Bay Area Big Brothers

Richard Miles remembers the low rumble of the engine, the sunshiny Southern California day and the hulking silhouette of the 1965 Cadillac — it looked like the world’s most elegant beached whale.

He opened the door and hopped in. He was 11 years old and he was terrified.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen?'” recalls Miles, who, at 53, can look back on those days and smile.

To answer Miles’ own question, what happened was, as Rick Blaine from “Casablanca” would put it, the beginning of a beautiful friendship. The driver of the ’65 Caddy was a successful young stockbroker named Karl Sussman — Miles’ new Big Brother.

Miles still keeps in touch with Sussman to this day, even though Miles is now one of the biggest brothers of them all: the onetime Little Brother is now CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters Bay Area, an organization serving more than 1,200 local youngsters.

Miles understands the plight of his organization’s young clients because, at one time, it was his plight too. Fifty years ago, Miles’ father, Martin Schwartz — one of the few Jewish pilots to earn a Silver Star — died in a plane crash.

“You don’t have to be in trouble to deserve a Big Brother or Big Sister in your life. We have several Jewish kids in the program — one young man in particular, his father just died,” said Miles, describing a situation that could have been his own.

When asked what he learned from his Big Brother, Miles laughs. Well, for one thing, he learned men did laundry. It sounds banal — until you think about it.

“I had a single, working mom. And she did everything. So, as far as I knew, women cooked, cleaned, worked, everything. So even that kind of mundane stuff, you learn, ‘Oh, men do this too,'” recalled the Oakland resident, a congregant at Piedmont’s Kehilla Community Synagogue.

Miles’ time with his Big Brother Sussman was full of the little moments kids with two parents take for granted — and single-parent children crave.

They went to the beach and to the movies. They watched ballgames or swatted around a tennis ball. And then there was the time Miles took a bus to Sussman’s office and just watched him at work.

“If you have a dad and you and your dad are supposed to go off and play baseball and he says, ‘Listen, I have to stop by the office and do a few things beforehand,’ you’re like, ‘Oh man!’ You go sit in the office and you’re bored. But if you don’t have a dad, it’s a totally different reaction,” said Miles with a grin.

Matching a Little Brother or Sister to a “Big,” as Miles calls them, is a fairly long and arduous process. Prospective Bigs are thoroughly vetted and must sign up for at least a one-year commitment. In the Bay Area, the typical relationship lasts for about three years, a shade higher than the national average — though Miles points out that BBBSBA recently honored a pair of Big Brothers in their 10th year and counting.

And, like Sy Sperling of the Hair Club for Men, not only is Miles in charge of BBBSBA, he’s also a client. He recently started a Big Brother relationship with a young Jewish boy — Miles’ daughters are both grown and “I really wanted to have some young person in my life that I could just hang out with.”

Miles emphasizes that “you don’t have to be a superhero” to be a great Big Brother or Sister. And he hammers that point home with a poignant story.

A friend of Miles’ asked his Little Brother what he wanted to do that day. The response: “Nothing.” So the Big Brother stared and stared at the kid until the Little Brother finally said, “OK, let’s go to your house.” So when they got there, the Big Brother asked “So, what do you want to do now?” The response: “Nothing.” So he stared and stared and stared some more at the Little Brother until he admitted what he really wanted:

“Can I watch you shave?”

For more information about Big Brothers Big Sisters Bay Area or to donate to the program, visit

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.