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Weight Watchers Founder Jean Nidetch Dies At Age 91

Jean Nidetch had a soft spot for struggling women. Whether they were fighting to maintain a healthy weight, striving to get an education or working hard to launch a business, Nidetch was there to help.

In her efforts, Nidetch had an out-sized effect on Southern Nevada, founding a women’s center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and supporting philanthropies such as Opportunity Village, the Nevada Ballet Theatre and the UNLV Foundation.

Weight Watchers Founder / Imgur

Weight Watchers Founder / Imgur

Weight Watchers Founder Jean Nidetch Dies At Age 91.

Nidetch, a one-time compulsive eater who founded Weight Watchers, died Wednesday of natural causes at her home in Boca Raton, Fla. She was 91.

Million-dollar idea: As the weekly meetings at her home grew to include dozens of people, two of them — Felice and Al Lippert — convinced Nidetch, pictured in 1965, she had the makings of a business

Million-dollar idea: As the weekly meetings at her home grew to include dozens of people, two of them — Felice and Al Lippert — convinced Nidetch, pictured in 1965, she had the makings of a business

The New York native lived in Las Vegas from 1991 to 2006, and quickly became a beloved member of the city’s philanthropic community.

“She spoke very candidly. She was larger than life, and she was a lot of fun,” said Shelley Berkley, a former congresswoman who was a regent of the state’s university system when she met Nidetch in the early 1990s. “She was very confident in her abilities, and with good reason. She was a pioneer when it came to women in business.”

Nidetch struggled with weight throughout her life and founded Weight Watchers in the early 1960s in her apartment in Queens, New York. By 1963, Nidetch’s meetings, which emphasized personal responsibility and physical activity along with a fish-heavy diet, outgrew her apartment.

As Nidetch’s program became ubiquitous, she became a celebrity. Singer Jennifer Hudson and former professional basketball player Charles Barkley were among the millions who shed pounds through the program.

More than 36,000 Weight Watchers meetings now take place through franchises across the world, said spokeswoman Jenny Zimmerman. The company also sells customized meals and subscriptions to online weight management products.

Nidetch didn’t just create a weight-loss empire. She also paved the way for women in the corporate world.

In a speech to a local group, Nidetch told of visiting her local bank to apply for a $1,500 business loan, Berkley recalled. The bank told her she’d need her husband — a bus driver “with no education and absolutely no clue what she was doing or why she was doing it” — to cosign, Berkley said.

“She was very sensitive to the obstacles that women in those days had to overcome to achieve success,” said Berkley, now the CEO and provost at Touro University Nevada in Henderson. “Once she achieved the success that she did, she not only wanted to share it with others, but she wanted to help empower women so that they wouldn’t have to jump through the hoops she had to when she was starting her business.”

So Nidetch gave $1 million in 1993 to build the Jean Nidetch Women’s Center at UNLV. The center plans and promotes events to raise awareness of sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking and parenting issues. It has built coalitions with community agencies to call attention to interpersonal violence. Its 24-hour crisis hotline provides support, resources and referrals for victims and survivors of violence. Its lactation initiative provides moms with private places on campus for breast-feeding.

The center’s scholarship program provides $2,500 a year in financial assistance to students with good grades, a full UNLV course load and a history of overcoming adversity. Hundreds of students have received the scholarship in the last two decades, said center director Christina Hernandez. The center’s other programs have helped thousands more students.

The center is the only women’s center at any Nevada university, Hernandez said.

“Jean Nidetch was able to help a lot of people through the center, and with the scholarships we offer,” she said.

UNLV granted an honorary doctorate degree in 1993 to Nidetch, who lived in a modest, 3,000-square-foot home in Desert Shores until 2006, when she moved to Florida to be closer to her son.

“Before Jean Nidetch funded the women’s center, there was no place on campus for women to congregate, and to concentrate on issues that were important to them,” Berkley said. “She has made life better for thousands of young women who never met her and who never knew she existed. That’s her legacy.”

Weight Watchers Founder Jean Nidetch Dies At Age 91.

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