Don’t give him my regards . . . Give him my respect.

(gorgeous piece… – promoted by pfiore8)

(cross-posted on Kos)

In the 1950’s, my Dad was the head counselor at a summer camp in in Pennsylvania. About 10 years ago, I ran into a friend who had gone to the camp.  After reminiscing for a few minutes, I asked him if he would like me to give his regards to my father.  His answer:

“Don’t give him my regards.”  He paused.  “Give him my respect.”

The comment captured his larger-than-life presence for generations of kids at summer camps and at the schools where he was a teacher and principal.

My Dad died on October 24 at the age of 91.  He was a quintessential member of the “Greatest Generation.” Born in 1916 to immigrant parents, he made it through the Depression, went to City College, served in W.W. II, took advantage of the G.I. Bill, raised a war baby (my big brother) and a boomer (me), moved to an “urban suburb” (Rockaway Beach, NY), worked two jobs — teacher and principal; and camp counselor and director.

Also, between 1973 and last month, he tenaciously and courageously fought his way through several heart attacks, a couple of “mini-strokes,” two multiple bypass surgeries, carotid artery surgery, gall bladder surgery (with complications), knee surgery and loss of most of his sight and hearing.  But another heart attack on January 1, 2007 began a series of events that even he could not withstand.  

In the Emergency Room that night, the doctor asked a series of questions to test his cognitive functions:  He aced “What’s your name?” and  “What’s your wife’s name?”  Then the doctor asked “Who’s the President?”  

His reply: “We have a President?”

We knew then that his mental functioning was fine.  

Following New Year’s Day, he was in and out of hospitals and nursing homes (Arden Wood Christian Science home provides nursing care on site and within the San Francisco Bay Area, and we considered them at one point too), with a few precious but difficult months at home with my equally heroic Mom.

I usually spoke by phone to my parents in the evening, just before 11:00, but Dad was now unreachable that late.  Because I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to walk to and from work through Central Park and midtown Manhattan, I talked with my Dad by cell phone as I walked.  

We talked on winter days with snow gracing the trees around Strawberry Fields, on gorgeous spring mornings with the emerging sunlight slanting through the trees lining Literary Walk , and on brilliant summer evenings with red sunsets dropping between the buildings west of the Sheep Meadow.  Out of the Park and on the midtown streets, I’d tell him what New York landmarks I was passing: the Museum of Modern Art, the Plaza Hotel, F.A.O. Schwartz, and points beyond.  Just after he died, I was very touched when one of the nursing home aides let me know that that they tried to time his morning or evening routines so that he’d be able to take my calls.

A lot of the time we’d talk about politics.  He’d often start with “So what’s going on in the world?” followed quickly by “Don’t answer that!”  — his recognition of the latest horrifying or merely depressing events unfolding that day.  Despite his failing eyesight, he was still reading the Times op-ed page up to just a few weeks before he died, and together we shared our disdain for David Brooks and our admiration for Paul Krugman. I became a walking “link” to the blogs, and Daily Kos in particular.  (I gave him an autographed copy of Crashing the Gate.)  He was proud that one of my diaries on Brooks’ loathsome piece about Gore) had been “recommended.” (That is, he was proud after I explained what that meant, and why, in our strange corner of the world, this is significant).  The very last book he began reading was the large type version of Obama’s The Audacity of Hope.

The rage and passion in my calls increased commensurately with the mounting abuses of the Bush administration, and my Dad actually became concerned that my health might be jeopardized by overwrought emotions.  I assured him that by writing comments and diaries, and otherwise being involved in campaigns, I had channeled my emotions in a healthy direction.

One of my last rants to my Dad involved the Telecom immunity bill.  Fueled by Glenn Greenwald’s brilliant exposition and righteous indignation, I described the issue to him in detail.  In particular, he was surprised and appalled that former Clinton administration officials, including an Assistant A.G., were lobbying hard for immunity.  What was especially galling was that the A.A.G. had been a camper at his camp in the 1970s!

“Nobody’s perfect,” I told him.

My Dad was born in bucolic Holyoke, Massachussets in 1916, and lived there until he was five.  He also visited there frequently after that, staying with his grandfather Max and his Uncle David, who had built a flourishing exterminating business.  In his teens, he was sort of an intern for them and developed a deeper understanding of poisonous gases and powders than most kids of his age.  He went on many bug and rodent jobs in the Holyoke/Springfield area, and remembered cleaning out one infestation in the Lowell, Massachusetts City Hall that turned out to have been caused by City Councilmen leaving their lunches in their desks for long periods of time.  

Fortunately for generations of school kids and campers, my father did not go into the exterminating business.  

Back in East New York, Brooklyn, he entered Junior High School and was elected class president.  Thus began his career as a campus politician. He went on to hold similar offices at Thomas Jefferson High School and City College.  He liked to say that he was elected because nobody else wanted the job, but we knew better.  His charisma and leadership skills then were the same ones that inspired people at schools, camps and elsewhere for the rest of his life.

His position as student government President at City College led to one of several close encounters he had with Eleanor Roosevelt.  Both he and Eleanor spoke at his 1938 commencement, and his photo was to appear in the Microcosm, the City College yearbook. However, at the last minute, a photo of Eleanor replaced his, illustrating the College’s inexplicably distorted sense of priorities.

One of my Dad’s lesser-known skills was making and working with marionettes.  He put on children’s shows, of course, but also delved into more serious adult fare.  I think it’s safe to say that his was the only marionette production of Clifford Odets “Waiting for Lefty” ever to be performed.  

He took his marionette skills to a summer job at a camp in 1935 – the beginning of his 45-year career in camping.  One evening that summer, he joined a round-robin ping-pong game that included some female counselors from a neighboring camp.  He and a dance counselor named Giselle ended up as the last two players, and the rest is history. After a whirlwind courtship lasting five years, they were married in Brooklyn in 1940.

After college, he had a variety of jobs, including as a New York City Board of Education teacher-in-training, running a mechanical pony ride at the 1939 World’s Fair, and teaching at a Yeshiva.  His incipient teaching career was interrupted by the start of the Second World War, and by 1942, he was in the service – a three-year hitch that took him to places like Biloxi, Mississippi, Denver Colorado and Hondo, Texas – but fortunately, not to Europe or the Pacific.  My older brother was born in July 1943.

After the war, he continued his teaching and camp careers.   While he was teaching at a junior high, he took a job as assistant director of the East New York Youth and Adult Center, located at his alma mater, Thomas Jefferson High School.  In the early ’50’s he succeeded to the full time job of director of the Center, where over 8,000 kids and adults took over 100 courses.   Summers he and my Mom continued their camp counselor careers.  I appeared in February 1948, and four months later, started my own camping career as camp infant.

In about 1951, we ventured out of Brooklyn to the beach community of Belle Harbor, and moved into a red brick house just a half block from the beach.  Also that year, Dad  became head counselor at the camp in Pennsylvania.  He left the Youth and Adult Center in about 1954 and a few years later, was appointed as Principal of P.S. 80 in Coney Island.  He stayed there for 17 years, and made the school an educational oasis in the poverty-stricken resort area.  For most of the same period, he and my Mom were directors of a girls’ camp in the Adirondacks.

In November, we had a beautiful Memorial Service for my Dad, which included tributes from people representing from all aspects of his life going back to the 1940’s.  There were speakers or written messages going back to the 1940’s from colleagues, teachers who worked for him, campers and counselors from his camps and Ethical Culture Society members.  A teacher at his school in Coney Island wrote:

His passing has revisited memories of a very caring and admired person whom I recognize today as the most distinguished gentleman I ever met.

A man in his late sixties who had been both a camper and a counselor at the camp praised my Dad in several extended  anecdotes, including this story:

In 1955, I was the captain of the “Green” team in color war [a week-long all-camp competition toward the end of the summer].  We won, and for a few days I was strutting around the camp, feeling not just good, but a little too cocky.  I was passing by HQ (the head counselor’s office) and he called me in.  He looked my in the eye and said, “Two days ago you were a hero.  .  . Now you’re an asshole.”  Rather than being offended, I took his blunt advice to heart.  That lesson in humility turned out to be invaluable throughout my life.

But the most revealing story came from a member of the Ethical Culture Society, who described a 2000 millennium activity in which everyone was asked to come to a board at the front of the room and write “the best thing about the 20th century,” anticipating responses like, “Aviation” or “The United Nations.”  

My Dad wrote simply:

                                                                                                                             

Giselle

21 comments

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  1. RiaD’s memoir on Kos encouraged me to try this out over here.  Please note that the names have been changed to protect the anonymous.

  2. Thanks for posting this.  And condolences on the loss of your dad.

    • Tigana on December 20, 2007 at 5:17 am

    • RiaD on December 20, 2007 at 12:32 pm

    what a loving tribute to your father! Your story makes me feel like I’ve just met a wonderful man. So great you could talk daily, and that you took the time to do so.

    Sounds like the service for him was filled with love & laughter and just a few poignant tears…

    Please give Miss Giselle a big hugkiss from me & tell her she has done a fine job in raising you!

    ps…glad you’re here, please write more!

  3. and so sorry for your loss. This essay renewed ny belief in humanity once again. often the greatest generation is touted for fighting the big one this essay seems to be about a man who fought the little one, the real values little ones, humanist ones, the forgotten ones, the one we all need to fight now. Thank you.  

    • pfiore8 on December 21, 2007 at 4:30 am

    did you notice that this was Front-paged?

  4. it is so illuminating the things that turn out be important at the end of our lives……

    sometimes they are different from the things that mattered at the beginning of our lives…….

    the great gift of time is the opportunity to deepen oneself……

    which can only happen with time….

    and only if a soul forgoes other things in the act of choosing to do so…..

    he was a deep soul…..

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