It was only a matter of time before William Dowdell Denson would make an appearance here at my blog.
It’s hard to know where to begin in telling you my story about Bill Denson. He was so many things to me: a colleague, a confidante, a mentor, and above all, one of my closest friends.
But as you are about to learn as I did back in 1990, Bill was so much more. And while this remarkable gentleman is no longer with us, he will forever remain a larger than life figure in our American/WWII history.
By the time I met Bill he was 77 years old and in the twilight of his distinguished legal career. I was 29. We would become an unlikely and somewhat inseparable duo. I was marketing director and Bill was of counsel to a prominent Nassau County law firm, Meltzer, Lippe et al, also known as MLG.
The managing partner of MLG had an avant-garde approach to marketing, so it was of no surprise to me when Lew asked me to develop a newsletter that would read more like People magazine than a stodgy corporate bulletin. I instantly latched on to the idea because the concept would enable me to employ my love of digging around for, and writing, good stories.
So began the process of me finding the compelling human interest story behind each lawyer in the firm’s “stable.” I decided to begin my interviews with questions or statements like: “what do you do, or who are you, when you’re not practicing law?” Or, “Tell me something no one knows about you, or your unique story.”
Now, asking a lawyer that kind of a question might seem pretty antithetical if your goal is to communicate and sell the collective legal prowess of a law firm. But, that line of questioning worked wonders in gaining entree to the provocative kind of content I needed to make our new newsletter InSights live up to its People magazine promise. And as it turned out, clients and potential clients responded with great interest and enthusiasm to the back stories of MLG lawyers. It enabled personal and very human connections to take place that broke the ice surrounding the complex legal problems that were often brought to the firm.
I soon discovered there were cantors, dancers, important art collectors, and even a young partner whose father was a renowned accordion artist who, among many incredible recording accomplishments, performed on the soundtrack of the Godfather, as well as appeared in the wedding scene of that same film.
And then I got to Bill.
Bill, was an Alabama-born, West Point, Harvard Law School-educated Atticus Finch-like lawyer who spoke with a charming southern drawl. All of those qualities had a mesmerizing effect that captivated me so I figured, this is going to be easy.
Actually, no, it was not.
Why do you want to know? Bill slowly and defiantly drawled out in response to my question, in a clear effort to make me defend and/or reconsider my plan. His pensive blue eyes were trained on me in wait of my answer. He did not reveal a shred of emotion to allow me to get a read on how I was doing, or where to go from there. (This, I later came to understand, was a great skill that Bill had mastered as a fierce litigator in his earlier courtroom days).
Suddenly, the little hot shot who sat before Bill was sufficiently reduced to her proper size.
I finally came up with an answer Bill evidently did not like.
“I want to use your story to market the law firm….you…and us,” I stammered, trying to make it clear I was on his side, being sufficiently intimidated of the alternative.
“You, do, do you? And what exactly do you hope to achieve by that?” Bill seemed to spit those words out at me in slow motion. He clearly reviled the idea of telling me his story for marketing or gratuitous purposes and wasn’t the slightest bit shy about making sure I knew that.
No, this was not going well at all. As I recall, the rest of the conversation continued something like this.
Me: Well, I’m your marketing director, and that’s what I’m supposed to do, and was asked by Lew to do (as if mentioning the managing partner’s name would score me points). I probably sounded like a childish fool and Bill took no pity on me.
Bill: Well, young lady, I happen to come from an era of lawyers who do not see it proper to advertise themselves. In fact, I find the idea garish if not ethically abhorrent, and I therefore will not allow it or be part of it, no matter what anyone says.
Now, what I have neglected to tell you thus far is that Lew gave me an advance briefing of Bill’s illustrious legal background to prepare me for the blockbuster of all stories ever to be told by his firm.
Bill served, under General George Patton’s Third Army, as the Chief Prosecutor for the United States in four war crimes trials held in Germany following the Second World War. After that, his government service included a stint as the Chief of Litigation for the Atomic Energy Commission where he represented the Commission at the espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, among so many more notable achievements and posts.
As Chief Prosecutor for the United States in the four WWII war crimes trials, Bill prosecuted 177 Nazis and sent 97 of them to the gallows. After the Dachau trials in Germany, Bill was later quoted: “I never tried an accused who I wasn’t personally willing to place the noose around his neck and pull the trap.”
This was no man to be messing with.
I decided to politely end my questioning for the day, and excused myself like a proper lady to return to my office and sulk.
The next day I heard a rap at my office door, and who of all people did I see standing there but the mighty Bill Denson. That charming voice spoke to me again.
Bill: May I come in?
Me: (uh oh?) No words. I nodded in the affirmative.
Bill: (in that sugary polite, charming southern drawl) May I sit down, if you pleeeease?
Me: Still silent, I patted my guest chair and took a long deep breath. I had no idea what was coming but prepared myself for the worst.
And then, a surprise.
Bill: I want to apologize if I came off a bit strong with you yesterday. I understand you have a job to do and I’ll see what I can do about helping you do that job, but I want you to know I have my limits.
Me: (now insulted and in the hubris of my youth also unafraid to speak my piece). Limits? What could you possibly mean by that? You can tell me whatever you want, or not, and I’ll be more than glad (relieved) to move on.
Bill: (With his eyes cast downward) You know, my dear old pappy, who was a very able lawyer and who taught me everything I know, was just about nearly disbarred for having the audacity to have the word “lawyer” engraved on the license plate of his car.
Bill articulated this to me in the hushed tones one uses to reveal a shameful family secret, and in that instant I understood exactly what yesterday’s flogging was all about.
Me: (with this reveal from Bill followed by a complete fascination by the prospect of peeling away the layers of this “onion”) How about we start out like this- nice and simple- you tell me your story, from the beginning, and I’ll keep my pen down and listen. I really want to hear it, if for no one else, but myself.
Bill seemed both amused and challenged by my offer, and with that, gave me a wide and sincere smile nodding in the affirmative. We shook hands on the deal and made plans to have our first lunch together.
After that, I visited Bill daily to hear installments of his story during lunchtime. After starting out on a light note by making me chuckle at his obvious disappointment or disgust over the items he begrudgingly pulled out of his lunch bag (items like yogurts or other fat-free products packed by his wife to guard against his heart condition) Bill started from the beginning to tell me the story of his life and his work.
There were nights I could not sleep after some of the particularly intense sessions we shared pouring over Bill’s experiences, that often included Bill sharing his U.S. Army photo collection depicting the gruesome conditions found in WWII concentration camps after liberation. These were the same images used as exhibits in the trials to depict the crimes.
At Dachau, Bill tried nearly 200 hardened war criminals who perpetrated unthinkable atrocities against innocent and helpless prisoners held in WWII concentration camps- many defiant until the very end, with one, actually saluting and proclaiming “Heil Hitler” in his final moments just before being hanged.
Now here in this blog I can tell you so much more about Bill’s remarkable legal achievements that have since been well documented in history. A Google search will easily take you to video interviews of Bill that are included in exhibits at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington DC and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.
But this story is about my personal journey with Bill, and how his incredible experiences, friendship and trust transformed my life in ways I never could have expected.
During one of our lunch sessions I shared with Bill that my mother had become a refugee as a teenager in Germany during the final years of WWII. Mom was forced to flee her home, along with her mother and younger brother, as a result of the constant bombings and killings of innocent German civilians during those final savage months before the war ended.
I told Bill that mom was later devastated to learn what her people had done, and it haunted and hurt her years after she emigrated to America after her marriage to my father, then a U.S. Army officer stationed in Berlin. There were so many times, as a child, that I would hear mom sobbing alone in her bedroom, and when I asked her why she would simply reply: “oh nothing, dear. Mommy is sad about the war.”
The war? What war? Didn’t that happen a long, long time ago, mommy? But for my mother, the pain and anguish she felt between 1943-45 was as fresh as if it had happened yesterday.
Bill was truly moved to hear that story, even wiping his own eyes in empathy, and in return, told me that his German-born wife, nicknamed Huschi (her birth name was Constance) was equally ashamed and appalled, as was her father, whose life tragically ended after that war. His own wife suffered in the same way my mom did.
You see, Bill, for most of his married life, was reluctant to share the full scope of emotions and details connected to his service in Germany in going after these murderous Nazis with a vengeance as to spare Huschi from any more shame than she had already known. After all, Bill was about fairness and justice, and his wife was surely at the top of his list of those most deserving.
Bill had no interest in sharing his experiences for personal glory. His goal was to teach anyone who would listen that these heinous acts at the camps did in fact happen, and could very well happen again in our human history if our civilized society did not take sufficient measures to guard against it, and those who condone such inhumanity.
In thinking about Bill today, I am tearful by the idea that his love and concern for his wife Huschi often caused him to gloss over his experiences in Germany. And yet, his heart and soul needed to purge, because for him, the trauma, as it had for my mom and for Huschi, endured.
Bill just didn’t know how or where to really begin; he was not of a generation that turned to therapists to unload such burdens. It was a constant internal struggle. And above all – fierce litigator aside – Bill was an absolute perfect gentleman at all times. He aimed to please his family, friends and colleagues, not bring them down by heavy conversation or look for sympathy.
And so, when I came along in 1990 and unknowingly forced that door open, it was like a spigot had been opened making way for a constant gush that didn’t stop until Bill took his last breath.
To witness Bill achieve what appeared to be some measure of peace and closure during his final years was as transformative for me as it was for him.
All those who appeared at Bill’s many lectures openly revered him and told him he was a hero, although that was never his intention. What warms my heart until this day is it turned out that nobody was more proud of Bill than Huschi and their grown children.
One of the most somber, but proud moments of my life occurred in the fall of 1998 when Huschi and Bill summoned me to their home in Lawrence. By that time I had left the law firm to start my own marketing/public relations practice, but remained in close contact with Bill and the Denson family.
Bill’s longtime heart condition was finally getting the best of him, and the Denson family knew his days were coming to an end. A very frail Bill took my hand that day and asked me to write his obituary, while Huschi asked me to be the family’s spokesperson to the media after he passed. It was a heartbreaking request, but naturally, I honored it. How could I begin to tell Bill, and Huschi, what they had meant to me? There was nothing I wouldn’t do for them.
So my final days with Bill were spent at his bedside going over the obituary I had written. There were a lot of tears between us and we treasured what we knew were our final moments together. Bill asked me to read what I wrote over and over again to him, as he also suffered from macular degeneration and had limited vision. Finally, when he was satisfied I put the work away, praying it would be a very long time before I had to release it, but knowing it couldn’t possibly be long. My friend was dying.
Huschi called me some weeks later on December 13, 1998, to tell me that her beloved husband had passed away peacefully in his sleep at home early that morning, just as he had wanted. And on that day, as I promised, the world found out that William Dowdell Denson was no longer with us. But it would not be long before his life and work would be recognized throughout the world.
In 2003, with Huschi’s cooperation and assistance from MLG, documentarian Joshua M. Greene authored a book, “Justice at Dachau” the cover of which appears here at my blog.
Huschi followed Bill into the hands of God on December 5, 2006. I will miss them both forever, and will always remain thankful to Bill and Huschi, as well as to their children, Yvonne, Will, Jr. and Olivia, for welcoming me, my husband and our two daughters, into their remarkable and memorable family.
Little did I know Bill was as soft and vulnerable on the inside as anyone else. But by giving me that “test” the first day we met, Bill made me earn my way into his friendship and trust that makes me all the more grateful for the journey.
If Bill were here today to read this story and about the day we met, he would probably chuckle at my expense and say in his exceedingly charming southern drawl, “Brains” (his nickname for me) you know I was only joshin’ you that day.
Only I would know, he really wasn’t.
Each year on June 13th I spend a few minutes recalling the events that led up to the moment mom slipped from this life into history.
It was the year 2004, and during that first week of June I was preoccupied with a bit of worry about mom after she revealed she was experiencing nausea and indigestion. I didn’t like the weakened sound of her voice.
I begged her to let me take her to the doctor, but mom dismissed the symptoms as nothing out of the ordinary. “I ate too many cherries,” she told me with a little embarrassed laughter.
But I was still troubled by what I was hearing. At 75 years old Mom was a heavy smoker and had been since she was a teen.
I made mom agree to a deal after she revealed to me for a second time in two days that she was not feeling well, yet continued to insist she was fine.
I called it the “three strikes and you’re out” rule and our deal was if she admitted to these same symptoms for a third time after I asked in as many days, we were off to either the doctor or the emergency room. She reluctantly agreed.
As it turned out, mom struck out on the third day.
She called me around noontime and said she hadn’t been feeling well all morning. I heard a little concern in her voice and asked if she was still feeling the same symptoms she described to me the prior two days that she insisted were nothing.
She issued the code red with just three words: “three strikes rule.”
I was in my car in an instant.
When I arrived to mom’s house her color was ashen. Within a half hour of arriving to the emergency room, she was forever silenced by a massive heart attack.
No doubt, mom’s heart attack was in the making for years before it finally perfected itself on that fateful Sunday. Heart disease is sneaky, particularly in women.
There were clear warning signs leading up to the day, and others, I am certain, she never told us about.
Mom was not the squeamish type, having survived WWII Germany as a teenager and refugee. She had a high threshold for physical and mental pain that defined her.
Mom was just emerging from the worst anguish of all when the heart attack claimed her. Dad had died just fifteen months earlier after complications from a stroke. His death was a devastating blow to mom from which we now know she would not recover.
Sure, mom’s smoking did her in at the age of 75. But paving the way to cardiovascular catastrophe was the fact that she was also suffering a broken heart.
Mom and dad were mutual intellects who challenged, entertained and aggravated each other in equal measure.
Observing them during their legendary exchanges about world history or current events was a thrilling experience. One could never guess which of the two would emerge the victor. They argued their respective positions like lawyers in a courtroom.
Dad was always a good sport when mom prevailed as the expert on any given subject, emitting a loud and loving laugh that instantly melted the ice that had accumulated during the squabble.
Mom relished her rightness, and she was right so much of the time even though dad made her work to earn it before he would concede.
Dad would issue the ultimate challenge by saying, “prove it!” and within minutes mom was able to produce supporting documentation to win her argument.
Because mom’s education was interrupted by war, she was inexhaustibly self-taught from a lifetime of devouring every history book, biography, magazine or newspaper she could get her hands on. Our home had a full set of Colliers encyclopedia, overfilled book cases in virtually every room and stacked books spilling out of corners.
Mom’s thirst for knowledge about world history was particularly insatiable. She could put history scholars, including her Ivy-League educated husband, to shame.
But all of those books and knowledge could do nothing to illuminate mom’s thinking about smoking. She was proud of how fit and active she was, and from all outward appearances, nobody could argue that.
Dad was among an era of doctors who smoked, but promptly quit in his early fifties after his patient pointed out the irony of the surgeon treating him for cancer, who was advising he quit to survive that cancer, himself smoked.
No doubt, dad was embarrassed enough by the revelation to quit smoking on the spot, and was ever thankful to that patient for the wake up call he needed.
Dad, in turn, sounded a wake up call for mom to stop smoking, too.
He threw out her cigarettes, scolded and cajoled her, with mom making endless excuses for her continued smoking, along with half-promises to quit.
Here I reveal a very personal and painful example of smart people doing, well, not so smart things.
Too many of us find it easy to convince ourselves that somehow we will be the ones to escape the perils of our bad habits, whatever they may be, and I of course include myself here, and that horrific diseases happen only to other, less fortunate souls who do not have the constitution we believe to possess.
Or, as was the case with mom, we convince ourselves that we are entitled to hang onto bad habits without consequence because surely we have met and exceeded our quota in life for pain or suffering.
Mom always justified her smoking as having started, and having been an absolute necessity, during the war because there was no food, but somehow, cigarettes were plentiful. She credited cigarettes for easing her hunger, soothing her anxiety, and, surviving war.
Those were some pretty compelling excuses for such a lousy habit.
But as we make those compelling excuses to ourselves or entertain thoughts of our own indestructibility, we look around and see family members, loved ones and friends who, in an instant, fall to their knees battling illnesses they never imagined.
And in those moments we are forced to face the truth. We are all vulnerable.
June 13, 2004.
The brilliant and bright light, exuberant and delightful lady I called mom who survived war-torn Germany and inspired so many by her intelligence, charm and beauty, disappeared in an instant without so much as a goodbye.
For some years after, I anguished over what could or should have been done to prevent the calamity that befell mom too soon in her life, and us.
I ultimately came into an acceptance that people make their own choices, and either live with them, or sometimes as is the case, die from them.
I and my siblings did all we could; dad did all he could, but in the end, it was just another another argument with mom he couldn’t win.
So instead of thinking of mom as having left us for a bad habit she refused to break, I choose to ponder another possible scenario.
Mom was every bit as smart as we knew her to be, and on that day it was time for her to admit to dad he was absolutely right– that he had won that smoking argument fair and square- because she damn well had the supporting evidence to prove it.
The story of my surprise weekend is set in a particularly bitter cold winter in 1993.
Our daughters were one-and-a-half and three-and-a-half-years old, and Greg and I were living the 24/7 marathon sprint of young parenthood alongside demanding careers-in-the-making.
We were caring for our daughters, with a little help from our parents, in alternating days and shifts.
It was Greg’s day to watch them, and my dear husband, either because he is incredibly thoughtful, or, because the toddler-twosome got the better of him that day, or both, decided it was time for a romantic interlude.
I still don’t know when this weekend getaway plan for two was hatched. I only know I was informed about it at T minus 1.
The scene went something like this:
I arrive home from the office on a Friday at approximately 6pm. I exit the car, and still on the driveway with briefcase in hand, I am approached by Greg. He is a combination of flustered and enthused, and I wonder what catastrophe awaits inside. As I near the house, Greg gestures for me to return to the car.
Me: What’s going on? Where are the girls? Is the house on fire?
Greg: Everything’s fine. I have cooked up a little surprise for you. We are off to the city for the weekend. There is no time for delay. I made hotel and dinner reservations and we need to get on the road.
Me: (slightly panicked) Wait! I don’t understand. We are staying overnight? How wonderful….but what about the girls? Where are they? And my things…I need to pack some things! I’m not prepared for this.
Greg cradles my elbow and gently escorts me toward the car.
Greg: (in a reassuring tone) Everything has been taken care of. Your mom has the girls for the weekend- they are going to have a wonderful time together- and I’ve already packed your bag.
Me: (smiling to hide the horror). You packed my bag? How do you know what things I like to…NEED to…bring? You picked my outfits too?
Greg: I’ve got it all covered. I’m your husband, of course I know what you would want to bring and it’s all in that bag. He confidently points to a small duffel that I instantly know can’t possibly hold all I need.
Now, this is one of those moments in a marriage when you have to throw caution to the wind and give your spouse the absolute benefit of the (many) doubt(s).
After all, the man has just orchestrated a weekend surprise getaway of monstrous logistical proportions. He not only packed his and my bags, but also our daughters’ bags which as anyone with toddlers well knows, encompasses a considerable undertaking and mass of belongings and equipment larger than the children themselves.
Who am I to poke holes in this plan?
I inhale deeply and put on a face that exudes joy and gratitude. At least I’d like to remember it that way.
Me: With eyes still fixed on the duffel bag that seems to shrink smaller by the minute, I swallow and reply weakly: of course you know what I need, honey. After all (I really hope) you know my morning routine, and (I hope even harder) you know my evening routine, which includes brushing my teeth and the use of lotions and products and whatnot, among other things, right? Trying to convince myself I add: And you know my favorite comfortable weekend outfits, and how much I love my soft cozy winter pjs…and they’re clean (flashing through my mind: dear God did I even do the laundry this week?) and they’re all neatly tucked away in that ever-so-minuscule-teeny-tiny bag, right? (My tone turns to pleading).
Greg: (undaunted) Everything you need is in that bag. It’s time to go!
My handsome date is now holding the car door open like a perfect husband and gentleman and I follow the cue like the (usually) obedient wife that I am.
I am now in the front passenger seat kicking off the well-heeled pumps I was looking to shed hours ago, massaging my poor tired and aching feet.
Me: Greg? Did you happen to pack a comfortable pair of walking shoes or boots for me to wear this weekend?
Greg: Oh (pause). You need another pair of shoes? What’s wrong with the shoes you’re wearing?
Me: Silence. I think to myself it will be best to refrain from further questions.
After a lovely dinner we check into a hotel Greg’s brother recommended. It’s a nice place, if you don’t mind a room that is scarcely large enough to fit the bed. I try to look on the bright side, it was literally only one step’s distance to the bathroom, which I was dying to get into to wash my face, brush my teeth and tame my hair that is now wild from the high winds.
The time was upon me to finally unzip that little duffel to extract my usual array of toiletries that are the tools of my bedtime ritual. I dig around in search of my toiletry bag and come up empty.
Me: Greg, darling? Where are my toiletries?
Greg: You mean your toothbrush and toothpaste? They’re in the side zipper compartment of the duffel bag.
Me: Ok, but what about the other stuff, like my cold cream, moisturizing lotions, deodorant, hairbrush, hair dryer?
No response. But I already know the answer. Greg is now fully consumed with scanning the television for news, sports and weather. The talking head is reporting snow and sleet for Saturday, and I wonder how those high heels and I will fare under these conditions. But for the moment, I am confronted with a different problem.
I stare at my face in the bathroom mirror, wondering how on earth to remove the mascara without my cold cream. In desperation I tear the wrapper off the tiny hotel soap, lather it up under the tap and douse my face with its bounty. Instead of removing the mascara, this vicious bar of soap grossly displaces the black stuff all around my eyes, which by the way are now stinging horribly from the insecticide-like scent that is making me tear, sneeze and gag all at once.
I am in trouble.
I return to the space that is called a hotel room and face Greg. He gasps and asks why I have been crying.
Me: I wasn’t crying. I’m fine.
Greg: Are you sure? Because your make up is badly smudged and your eyes are beet red.
I try not to think about how I look at that moment, although the gruesome image reflecting back at me from that tiny hotel bathroom mirror will haunt me forever. I am singularly focused on getting into my cozy pjs, stretching out on that bed and resting my now swollen and blistered feet.
With small and careful steps I shimmy around the bed, place my duffel on it and start digging for those pjs. I can’t find them. I dump the contents out onto the bed and discover an undergarment I have not seen or worn since the birth of our first daughter.
Me: What’s this doing in here?
Greg: (with a wicked little smile) Isn’t that your nighttime cami?
Me: (???) No dear. It’s a girdle I bought after childbirth to coax things back into place in the cruelest of ways.
I toss the suit of armor to the floor and collapse onto the bed partly from exhaustion and exasperation, and partly because there was no place else to go.
The next morning I find myself eyeing that girdle of steel with a vengeance because my latest discovery is that Greg has packed a pair of jeans that have not fit me since the 7th grade. It was either the skirt, blouse and blazer from the day before, or these Barbie-sized jeans and a tightly-fitting sweater.
Oh, and did I mention my sole choice of white gym socks to pair with my heeled pumps?
What a picture I was that inclement Saturday as we shivered and endlessly stood in line at the Broadway Tickets booth in Times Square.
Thankfully, my coat concealed the silly undersized costume beneath, but I could not hide my still make-up-stained face, wild hair, and the bulk of white gym-socked feet awkwardly crammed into black patent pumps.
Dealing with ridiculous-looking frozen aching feet and trying to protect my expensive shoes from the sleet and snow were now a low priority.
I pretty much felt and looked like a scary circus clown.
There is a bright side to this weekend tale of beauty and fashion trauma. I kept reminding myself we were in New York City where I fit right in. Also, miraculously there were few mirrors in which to catch my atrocious image. So all I could do was think about what a nice time I was having with the best husband in the world.
Turns out I learned a couple of things – along with some unexpected surprises – thanks to Greg and the impromptu weekend getaway he organized for us in 1993.
First, I suppose I should feel blessed that my husband thought I needed only a toothbrush and toothpaste to put myself together each morning and night- and that he really and truly believed I could comfortably fit into those Barbie-sized jeans.
And, just as important, I should always keep a bag packed and ready to go for the next “surprise weekend” that, by the way, I’m still waiting for.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved Lucy.
I didn’t follow sports, but rooted for Lucy like my life depended on it.
On more than one occasion I came to near physical blows with my older brother to gain control of the TV to watch “my” show.
Brother Steve was a Star Trek devotee who found fascination with Captain Kirk and Spock (among others on the Starship Enterprise) interacting with bizarre-looking outer space creatures whereas I simply preferred the very earthly Ricardos and the Mertzes.
I could not get enough of watching this kooky housewife and her unflappable friend plan and hatch Lucy’s half-baked schemes. The resulting insanity always gave way to some important takeaway that I diligently filed away knowing someday it would come to good use.
After all, I never knew when I might have to wrestle a hefty Italian woman in a vat of grapes or land a television commercial gig lauding the benefits of a new health serum, and wanted to be prepared for such things.
Obvious (bad) humor aside, I believe I acquired some fairly helpful life skills while logging all those hours with Lucy.
For example, from who else could I possibly learn how to convince my friends to trust and follow me into my mission of the day, and then how to cleverly negotiate my way out should those best laid plans be upended by some unexpected hitch?
These were not things you could expect to learn from your parents or teachers, or even your coolest friend or relative.
When some of my more serious-minded friends learn of my devotion to “I Love Lucy” they roll their eyes in disbelief. Most are unable to recognize that there is actual wisdom to be gained from following the escapades of a bored and stage-crazy 1950’s housewife running amok.
Don't think so?
So here are my ten take-aways from I Love Lucy:
1. Headstrong, with a touch of wacky, and if necessary, unconventional, has a 95% success rate.
2. For the 5% of failures, it’s okay to cry and admit you’ve made a mistake.
3. I have no problem following my husband’s lead, provided he's headed in the same direction I am.
4. I rely on forgiveness of minor transgressions when they are motivated by unselfish or good intentions.
5. When said transgressions are unforgivable with a simple explanation, plan B is launched to make the aggravated either so confused or amused they forget why they were mad.
6. I am wary of going into business and/or traveling with friends, particularly if those friends are the Mertzes.
7. I have learned there is a way to justify just about any impulse purchase to the point of it being nearly medically necessary.
8. I have learned to accept my deficiencies on the dance floor but nonetheless unabashedly move as if I belong on Broadway.
9. I stay in my lane. You won’t ever see me trying to get into my husband’s writing “act.” No sir-ee not a written peep out of me.
10. I have learned that no matter what chaos I may inadvertently create from being overly adventurous (one of my most commonly used phrases is "how hard can it be?), it can quickly be remedied by an unfailing sense of humor and humility.
Laughter is, after all, the best medicine.
This week Huntington lost a devoted son, 51 year old Lawrence (Larry) Kushnick.
Larry’s untimely death was a horribly bitter pill to swallow. After learning the sad news I pondered the idea of our Town and a life without Larry in it, and simply could not process or accept it. How could Larry be gone? Among many things, he was a powerful life force, an intellect, a successful lawyer and businessman, a traveling sideshow comedy act, and, a generous spirit who endlessly and joyfully gave, expecting nothing in return. And he did it all with such ease, like it was nothing. And just like that, Larry was gone.
Life could not have sent us a more powerful or cruel reminder of its fragility.
Larry had a superb sense of humor and loved to make people laugh, which may have been one of his most endearing qualities. I first met Larry nearly twenty years ago while working on a campaign to help preserve Huntington’s OHEKA Castle. Larry loved Huntington, his hometown, and made it his business to advocate for the best of anything our Town had to offer. So, it was no surprise that Larry appeared on the scene to do his part to save a priceless architectural and historic Long Island Gold Coast mansion.
It was in the trenches of the OHEKA campaign that I first got to know and appreciate Larry. So many years later, and with a heavy heart over his life cut short, I manage a half smile remembering Larry dressed as a rather homely bride at a 1996 OHEKA Halloween party, complete with intentionally misapplied red lipstick for a creepy Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? effect. I believe that Larry would be pleased and proud to know that I, and probably a great many, still recall his grand, but clumsy, entrance into the Castle as Bridezilla all those years ago.
In more recent years, I had the pleasure of working alongside Larry in his leadership role at the Huntington Township Chamber of Commerce, attending many meetings with him and other business leaders to discuss important economic development issues and initiatives. A scant two weeks ago, Larry invited me to his May 21st breakfast inauguration as Huntington Township Chamber of Commerce Chairman. During his very inspiring Powerpoint presentation and installation, Larry repeatedly referred to the event as his “inauguration/bar mitzvah,” generating much laughter in the room. He was having a great time and we were all so very much looking forward to working with Larry to fulfill the many new goals and visions he outlined that morning in his inaugural address.
The days, weeks and months ahead will be difficult and painful as the Huntington Chamber and our Town work to regroup from this monumental loss. And, Huntington will surely never know another son quite like Larry Kushnick.
As we support each other in this time of sadness and loss, let us take some measure of solace in the knowledge that Larry was allowed to stay on with us just long enough to scratch out a roadmap offering clear directions of where he was looking to take us as Chairman of the Huntington Chamber. I know, if we only follow Larry’s lead, and go on to achieve the many goals and visions to which he aspired, we will honor his memory in the very best way possible. And, Huntington will be better for it.
We must now muster our energy and resolve to move forward to the many tasks ahead to complete this precious and unfinished life’s work. And in doing so, we must remember to find the joy and laughter along the way.
Larry would want it no other way.
Each day hundreds pass his murals that grace the facades of numerous Huntington buildings. They are pleasing to the eye, providing life and history to otherwise empty walls and spaces. They pay tribute to war veterans, historic figures, and even an iconic Huntington businessman. But they do not tell the remarkable story of Huntington resident Erich Preis, the man behind the art.
For 39 year-old Erich Preis, art is salvation. In addition to using his artistic talent and training to express his reverence for veterans and connection to God and nature, Erich uses art as therapy to overcome challenges with Asperger’s Syndrome.
Upon his diagnosis seven years ago, Erich felt like a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Since childhood, he struggled with an array of difficulties for which he was treated with medications. Despite the social and communication challenges he faced, in 1992 Erich successfully graduated from Harborfields High School. Following high school he earned an A.S. from Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in Art and Design, and later, a B.A. in Art Therapy from Long Island University, CW Post Campus. He also attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts on scholarship for two years, completed 12 credits at Queens College toward a Master’s, and earned certification by the State of New York to teach art.
Erich’s academic accomplishments are no small feat, especially for someone who suffers from an autism spectrum disorder that is estimated to occur at a rate of 2-6 per 1000 in the U.S. population. Yet, these achievements represent only a single dimension of Erich’s larger success story.
On 9-11 Erich’s life took a dramatic turn when he lost his friend and former FIT roommate, Michael A. Noeth, after American Airlines Flight 77 was hijacked and crashed into the west side of the Pentagon. Noeth served as the Chief of Graphics at the Pentagon, and was among the 125 casualties within the federal building.
The tragic loss of Noeth, a fellow artist and mentor whom Erich credits as being the first person to push him to reach new heights with his art, deeply resonated on a personal and professional level. It was Erich’s intent from that day forward to pay tribute to Noeth through his art. He also vowed to honor our men and women in the armed forces, past and present, who serve our nation and protect our freedoms.
Erich did what came naturally to him and picked up his brush and began to paint. Springing forth were a series of works depicting the heroism and sacrifice of our American war veterans. For Preis, it was a therapeutic exercise. His ability to express himself through paintings and sculptures provided a measure of comfort he was otherwise unable to achieve in the face of incomprehensible tragedy. “Painting keeps me focused and calm,” he explained.
Erich later came to know and befriend the late Len Totora, a lifelong Huntington resident and owner of L&L Camera in Huntington. Len was a proud Korean War veteran known for his philanthropy and compassion for the homeless, especially homeless veterans. In honor of Len, Erich painted a mural depicting him at both his L&L Camera building at 267 New York Avenue, and later, on the building located at the corner of Route 25A and Park Avenue, both in Huntington.
Erich first met Len Totora when his late grandfather, Robert Bailey, a naval aviator and Pearl Harbor veteran, accompanied him to the L&L camera store. Erich was anxious to trade his camera for another and was nervous he wouldn’t be able to get the camera he wanted, so he recruited his grandfather to assist in the transaction.
“I remember my grandfather giving me a wink during the drive to the store. He told me to let him do all the talking,” Erich said. During small talk while browsing cameras, Erich’s grandfather noticed the photos of Len in uniform displayed throughout the store and mentioned that he was at Pearl Harbor. In immediate recognition of doing business with one of his “brothers,” Len gave Mr. Bailey the camera his grandson was eyeing, no questions asked. “It was great!” Erich beamed.
A mutual devotion to veterans forged a camaraderie between Erich and Len. They worked together to raise $8,000 through private donors to finance a memorial to honor Christopher Scherer, a U.S. Marine from East Northport who was killed in Iraq in July 2007. The bronze sculpture created by Erich was later donated to the late Reverend Gaines for his Huntington Station Helping Hands Rescue Mission “Garden of Memories.” Rev. Gaines, whose dream was to create a memorial garden for the mission, had himself served as a U.S. Marine. The Scherer memorial was unveiled on October 9, 2011, the same day Erich’s beloved grandfather, Robert Bailey, passed away.
After Totora’s death on February 22, 2010, Erich was invited to do a mural at the former Village Green automotive building at the corner of Route 25A and Park Avenue in Huntington. At that location, Erich painted yet another image of the iconic L&L Camera owner, together with President George Washington. He does not believe it was a coincidence that Len Totora passed away on Washington’s birthday. However, Erich was not prepared to learn yet another profound connection associated with his decision to include Washington in that mural.
“A Park Avenue neighbor approached me as I was working and asked if I realized that George Washington had once delivered a speech at that very location,” Erich said. “She then pointed to the plaque commemorating the occasion, which I had not realized was there, and all at once I felt every hair on the back of my neck stand up,” he said.
As he toiled to complete the extensive mural on the Village Green building, Erich came up with an idea to fulfill a longtime dream. In January 2011, Erich’s dream became reality with the launch of a not for profit organization to help both children and adults with special needs discover art as a form of therapy as he did. The Spirit of Huntington Art Center offers a series of art classes with various instructors and guest artists, as well as the opportunity to participate in local outdoor mural projects under the direction of Preis. More recently, the Center added yoga instruction with exercises for calming breathing techniques.
Erich views his Asperger’s diagnosis in adulthood as a blessing rather than a burden. “It opened my eyes to a whole new understanding and appreciation of me. I now knew what I was dealing with, and was therefore able to study, understand, explore and accept it,” he said. Erich identified the classic Asperger’s trigger points, and then devised ways to use art therapy and yoga, both of which require intense focus, to intercept certain stimuli to the frontal lobe of the brain that sets off a sense of chaos or confusion. The mastery of these therapies ultimately substituted for the medications Erich had been taking since childhood. “I’ve never felt better,” Erich said.
Erich’s most recent mural at the Dole Fuel Oil building at 100 New York Avenue in Huntington depicts athletes engaged in various sports, and represents the second outdoor mural project undertaken by students of the Spirit of Huntington Art Center following that of the Village Green building. Erich is now actively seeking new mural locations so come springtime, he and the Center’s students can resume their outdoor artwork.
“With the benefit of understanding from personal experience, my art therapy training, and my faith in God, I now understand that my diagnosis has led me to something far greater than I could have imagined,” Erich reflected. “It is very important and rewarding to me to help others overcome the same difficulties I encountered.”
With that kind of upbeat spirit and sincere desire to help others, I have no doubt Erich Preis is well on his way to transforming his success story into more of the same for those fortunate enough to learn from him. What’s just as exciting is along the way, Erich and his protégés will leave a trail of beautiful murals for all of Huntington to enjoy.
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that one billion people are actively using the social media tool he created in his Harvard dormitory room in 2004.
Zuckerberg’s October 4th post stated, “Helping a billion people connect is amazing, humbling and by far the thing I am most proud of in my life.”
One billion. That’s a humongous number. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the world’s population at 7.04 billion. That means approximately 1 in 7 people on Earth is using Facebook.
I am one in that billion who can attest to the power of Facebook in making important and meaningful, if not life changing, connections.
I recall my introduction to Facebook in early 2007, when it was mostly the sacred stomping ground of the youth of America. Our daughters signed on to interact with their high school peers, and later, Facebook helped them get to know their college roommates months before they even stepped foot into their dorm rooms.
In March of 2008 I decided to join the Facebook community to participate in the planning of our 30 year high school reunion. It did not take long to understand our daughters’ fascination with the site. Almost instantly, I was interacting with people I had not seen since high school. I particularly enjoyed seeing photos of our respective children, who looked remarkably like we did the last time we were together. Although we were scattered far and wide across America, on Facebook, the Huntington High School Class of 1979 could once again share the same space.
By far the most remarkable connection I owe to Mark Zuckerberg’s ingenuity came late one evening in 2010 as I was scanning my news feed. A private message arrived from Lutz Wolff, whom I realized bore the same name as my first cousin who lived near Berlin, Germany. For much of my life, Cold War geopolitical barriers had made it virtually impossible for my mother to visit or correspond with her brother and his family, so I never got to meet or know my Uncle Kuni, his wife and their four sons, Lutz among them. While my grandmother, mother and two uncles had survived WWII as refugees, Checkpoint Charlie and then later, the Berlin Wall, eventually closed in on Uncle Kuni, effectively cutting him off from his mother and brother who had lived in Frankfurt, and his sister, who had married and moved to the United States.
In the thirty years the Berlin Wall stood, this hideously conceived fortification had achieved its architects’ intent of sealing off its inhabitants from movement or interaction within the outside free world. That was made certain by the wall having been perfected over time to prevent a series of daring escape attempts by freedom seekers trapped in the former German Democratic Republic. The impassable wall definitely irked a few who summoned the courage to dig underground tunnels, drive through it, hide themselves in car engine compartments, construct hot air balloons, jump from buildings, or crawl through sewer pipes to free themselves on the other side. But for most, like my cousin Lutz’s family, it had become an accepted fact of life. Even when the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989 with the reunification of Germany, it continued to cast a long and dark shadow.
As a result there was very little I knew about Uncle Kuni and his family, who my mom had often explained to her inquiring children, “were trapped behind the Iron Curtain.” I did know, however, one important piece of information: my cousin Lutz and my brother shared the same birthday. Mom must have told the story a dozen or more times: On October 13, 1958 my grandmother in Frankfurt received word of the arrivals of her first two grandchildren: Lutz Wolff in the German Democratic Republic, and my brother in America.
Over fifty years later, Facebook offered Lutz the means to search for and make contact with his American family. He validated his family connection to me by sharing the same story of his and my brother’s shared birthdays (a story that had apparently been told to him as well), and noted the names of our maternal grandparents, and of his father, my Uncle Kuni.
I am unable to describe in words the feeling of euphoria that overwhelmed me as I wrote back to Lutz. I had lost hope in ever being able know this branch of my family after my mother had passed away.
Sometime later Lutz wrote to let me know that his two sons, Christian and Marcus, had planned to visit New York for the first time. In July 2011, once again via Facebook, Christian sent me a message that he and Marcus had arrived in New York, and we made plans for them to stay with us. My husband and I spent one wonderful week introducing these young men to Long Island, Manhattan and their newfound American family.
Mom used to become upset and angry whenever she saw the motto displayed on the license plates of New Hampshire cars that read: “Live Free or Die.” I now understand the motto was a chilling and painful reminder that her brother Kuni was not a free man, but in mom’s mind, that did not mean he should have to die. She missed him terribly.
Unfortunately, mom passed away the same year Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook. I cannot help but wonder what a joy and thrill it would have been for her to discover Facebook, as I did, as a means to connect with the family from whom she had been long separated.
What were the chances that my cousin Lutz and I would finally connect with so many obstacles preceding us, not the least of which once included the Berlin Wall?
To me, if feels like one in a billion.
My cousin Lutz’s sons Christian and Marcus with me at Jones Beach.
My brother Steve and I at the L'Ecluse Greenhouse
I spent a large part of my childhood in the late sixties and early seventies exploring the abandoned ruins of a now vanished Gold Coast mansion.
In 1964 my parents built their house on the property where the Milton L’Ecluse mansion once stood. The stunning Italian Renaissance Revival residence and estate structures were constructed sometime before 1919, and were designed by the M.I.T. and Ecole des Beaux-Arts-trained architect John A. Gurd (1870-1924).
The L’Ecluse mansion was sadly demolished in the early sixties to make way for a residential developer’s vision for a new waterfront subdivision in Huntington called Terra Mar Drive. Despite the modern residential development frenzy that at the time was causing the remnants of Long Island’s Gold Coast to disappear from sight forever, several vestiges of the L’Ecluse estate managed to avert the wrecking ball.
The abandoned estate vestiges were barely holding on by the time I was old enough to explore them. I could see some of them from my bedroom window facing the rear of our property. A horse stable. A greenhouse complex. A carriage house. Their inhabitants were long gone but I stumbled upon all kinds of clues that transformed many a summer day into a real life Nancy Drew mystery novel.
The former horse stables and barn were wide open and accessible. The decaying wood planks from the walls and floors offered up occasional whiffs hinting at the horses and equipment that once filled the stalls. I noted faded scrawl on the walls that I presumed to be horse’s names, numbers (their height?) and dates (their birth?). Like those before me, I figured out how to hoist myself high up into the hay loft that instantly became my secret club house. Rays of sunlight shot through large and small holes in the sagging roof, highlighting swirling particles of dirt and other debris. But it was paradise to me.
The greenhouse complex was a greater challenge and danger to explore. The floor was covered with shattered glass interwoven with clinging ivy and fallen leaves that had gained entry through the now windowless greenhouse frame. Generations of large box turtles made their habitats safely beneath the greenhouse tables in rich dark soil that heaved up squirming earthworms and other unsightly creatures.
It took me days to figure out how to access the locked and abandoned adjoining greenhouse caretaker’s quarters, and when I finally did, I felt like an intruder. The space was still filled with the former occupant’s furnishings and personal belongings, as if he or she had only just departed, although its contents were clearly reminiscent of an era yet known to or understood by me. I spent hours studying these fascinating objects but I dared not remove them in the event the mysterious occupant chose to return. I often let my imagination run wild and pretended it was I who lived in that lonely space lost in time.
The carriage house was nothing more than a large and terribly uninteresting garage until I discovered, it too, had its own adjoining living quarters. A rear window revealed a ransacked kitchen and on the soffit above the sink, a doll-like figurine hung on the wall. Oddly, she resembled sweet Aunt Jemima on the pancake syrup bottle label. Still, I grew terrified of that doll when one day I noticed with great concern that she had somehow changed her body position.
Upon leaving each day, I carefully examined and committed to memory exactly how the carriage house kitchen doll was positioned. Sure enough, the following day I noticed her arms were now to the left while the day before they were to the right. Each new day found the doll in a new configuration. I was convinced she was alive, or the place was haunted, or both. My older brother Steve later confessed to manipulating the figurine into ever changing positions to spook me. He succeeded.
One afternoon I found a way to climb into the loft of the carriage house, whereupon I unearthed the most exciting discovery of all, a trunk filled with very old toys and books. I shared my bounty with some neighborhood kids who started to follow me in my daily explorations. The spoils included an original Mickey Mouse picture book, a striped ball, and a few rag dolls in frilly dresses, among other things. Gauging from the musty smell inside of the trunk that was now consuming these objects, it was obvious they had not seen the light of day in many, many years.
I gave away all but one book that I still have in my personal library and treasure today. It is titled Pinocchio in Africa and has a book plate inside that reads: “Private Library of Beatrice Boynton, April 10, 1912” inscribed just days before the fateful sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic.
In all these years I have never been able to find out who Beatrice Boynton is, and if she was related to anyone in the L’Ecluse family. My best guess is she was the daughter of an estate worker.
I am grateful for those early years of exploration in decaying estate buildings filled with interesting treasures and other surprises, some not always pleasant, but thrilling nonetheless. It was in those dark and dreary spaces that I found a way to further spark and light my imagination that was already well-fueled by the natural curiosity and wonder of a child. It was also there where my love of history and magnificent old buildings first took hold.
I continue to be captivated by Long Island’s Gold Coast, its history, and the glorious mansions that towered along the North Shore, the likes of which inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald to write The Great Gatsby.
Certainly the L’Ecluse mansion and its estate vestiges, some of which continue to stand in Huntington Bay today, will forever hold deep personal meaning to me. But more recently it has been OHEKA Castle, Long Island’s largest Gold Coast mansion, that has harnessed my heart, imagination and energies enough to co-author, with Ellen Schaffer, a book about its remarkable history, published by Arcadia Publishing. OHEKA Castle is available in bookstores or via Facebook, OHEKA Castle, the book.
I am grateful to have been raised in a time and place that enabled childhood exploration and curiosity to take hold long and hard enough to become an adult passion that in very many ways, continues to define who I am today.
A spirited community meeting this week got me thinking about what I could recall of an era in our Town’s history that neither time or events can erase from the minds of those who lived to see it: 1960s Urban Renewal in Huntington Station, and its unforgiving aftermath.
For many, the lingering malaise over unfulfilled promises of that “urban renewal plan” can be cut with a knife.
As a Huntington High School student during the late seventies, I dropped quite a bit of my babysitting earnings at the “Big H” shopping center. The high school’s then open-campus policy allowed us to venture to the nearby Big H during lunch period or study halls.
A short walk led to a slice of “real pizza” and to our favorite clothing boutique called Select, or to Martins, Woolworth and Sears. On weekends we headed to the York Theater nestled in the corner of the shopping center.
When I returned home from college in the mid-eighties I was saddened to see how the once thriving and popular shopping center had fallen into decline. By the late 1980s the Big H had hit an all-time low. The stores we had once loved were reduced to dark vacant spaces.
The departure of longtime anchor tenant Sears was the most sobering indicator that the Big H was in trouble. While a Pathmark eventually occupied the space that was once Sears, it struggled too, and eventually closed.
Fortunately, the nineties brought about the successful private redevelopment of the Big H property under the leadership of Huntington Town Supervisor Frank Petrone.
What was once an eyesore had now been transformed into a thriving commercial center anchored by national retailers, along with a Town-managed community center that was negotiated as part of the Big H redevelopment plan. The $30 million private sector revival of the Big H marked the Town’s first step in the revitalization of Huntington Station.
By the time I joined Supervisor Petrone’s staff in early 2002, Huntington Station’s continuing revitalization remained at the forefront of his agenda, and the Supervisor assigned me to assist him in advancing those goals. In doing so, I found myself working alongside an administration that was the first to begin the process of addressing the unfulfilled promises of Urban Renewal that preceded them by nearly a half century.
The Town, in response to community input solicited via the Town of Huntington Economic Development Corporation (EDC), for which I serve as Executive Director, invested millions in local, state, county and federal grant funds enhancing the New York Avenue streetscape with new curbs, brick sidewalks, decorative streetlights and street trees.
We’ve acquired and developed parcels to create Huntington Station Gateway Park, featuring a community garden. Next in the cue is the transformation of a blighted former NYSDOT right of way into an attractive pedestrian plaza to be known as Gateway Plaza.
It has taken some years to secure and cobble together grants from various sources to fund these community enhancements, but at last, most of our public projects have come out of the ground.
We also responded to residents who asked for a new grocery store and recreational opportunities by cultivating and fast-tracking private sector redevelopments, resulting in the Huntington Station Food Plaza and Station Sports Family Fun Center.
In addition to serving the community, these completed projects, among many others, are a clear signal of a municipality’s commitment to Huntington Station using all of the resources local government can bring to bear.
But we know there is more work to do.
The Town and EDC reached a crossroads about one year ago in planning for its next step in the restoration of Huntington Station’s downtown business district.
Despite our best efforts, individual developers were reluctant to invest in piecemeal developments at specific sites without the knowledge and confidence of a privately-driven comprehensive New York Avenue commercial corridor overhaul in the works.
I was born a bit too late to have a clear memory of the Huntington Station downtown, the heart of which was ripped out under federal Urban Renewal. But many families, especially longtime Huntington Station residents David and Barbara Campbell, who bought their home on Northridge Street in the fifties, remember it well.
The lost downtown featured convenience retail with apartments above, akin to Huntington Village.
Barbara Campbell told me that the realtor highlighted the fact that Huntington Station’s downtown area was under “Urban Renewal” as a major selling feature. When Barbara asked what Urban Renewal was, the realtor could only surmise that whatever it was, it had to be good. After all, isn’t the word “renewal” one that connotes something positive and new?
A few years later, the Campbells watched the downtown strip across from Northridge Street get bulldozed to the ground and replaced with a parking lot.
Like so many, David and Barbara Campbell are still waiting for a reprise of their downtown, as are the hundreds who turned out for our community meeting focused on Huntington Station’s future downtown redevelopment.
Despite the differences of opinion that have fueled heated debates about Huntington Station, the Town and community have always shared the common goal of seeing its revitalization to completion.
The meeting provided an opportunity to introduce the newest partner at the table, Don Monti, and his Renaissance Downtowns, LLC team, as the Town’s selected private Master Developer for Huntington Station.
Renaissance will lease office space at 1266 New York Avenue that is located in the heart of Huntington Station’s commercial corridor. In this way, Renaissance can be closely situated for the ease and convenience of residents seeking information or otherwise looking to get involved.
Renaissance plans to launch a social media platform as another tool to solicit ideas and build community consensus. In addition to their personal meet-ups, the social media platform will allow virtual community meetings to be held, thoughtful discussions to take place, and resident ideas to be shared and voted upon to warrant further study and action.
Renaissance’s approach to a comprehensive community-driven redevelopment, marked by “process before plan,” will build off of the multi-million dollar foundation created by the Town’s many public improvements.
In partnership, the Town and community, with a master developer at their side prepared to invest millions into Huntington Station, can move forward to achieve the mutual goal of completing the revitalization in a way that we can all be proud of.
Huntington Station is rising.
I am hopeful that when those shovels start hitting the ground, we can haul away the 1960s Urban Renewal malaise along with the construction debris.
It’s funny how certain things can trigger vivid memories of people and places from your past.
The scent of the same perfume worn by my first grade teacher can instantly place me back into Mrs. Felt’s classroom at Flower Hill Elementary School. Listening to Sirius Radio’s 80’s channel transports me back to college. Taking the back roads to Walt Whitman Mall, the same roads that led us to the home of Eugene Selesner, always remind me of our too short, but, important time with him.
Eugene (Gene) Selesner was a retired music teacher who taught for 20 years at Simpson and Finley Junior High Schools in Huntington, and before that, in Newark, New Jersey, until he relocated his family to Melville in 1968. But to us, during his last years, he became our daughter Kristina’s piano teacher and mentor, and dear family friend.
This is a story of an unlikely friendship between a reticent high school sophomore, and a fast-on-his-feet octogenarian who left an indelible imprint on her psyche. To do it justice, I will tell the story in a literary duet of both mine and Kristina’s voices – hers extracted from a college application essay she wrote to describe a memorable person. Kristina’s words appear in italics.
And so the story begins.
My mind raced. I had waited eagerly for the start of my piano lessons, but never anticipated being instructed by some “geezer” who, from my own assessment, looked as if he had been out of touch with the world for the last decade. Seeing this wizened man standing in the threshold had taken me by complete surprise, but not the kind of surprise one looks forward to. I glanced back at my mother in the car, fighting off the urge to run back to her and vent. However, my next steps were through the doorway and into his depressing abode.
In observing this scene from my car, I remember applying a Kung Fu grip on the steering wheel after catching a glimpse of Mr. Selesner’s stern-looking face peering at Kristina from behind his storm door. We selected Mr. Selesner by word of mouth, and therefore had never actually met him. I watched my daughter take a few anxious steps backward. Her teen instinct had her poised to bolt on a moment’s notice. Picking up on her subtle hesitation with a well-honed radar for typical teen behavior, Mr. Selesner waved at me in my car and quickly escorted Kristina into the house. As the door closed behind them, I crossed my fingers and headed to the mall to kill one hour.
We were both silent for a few moments. As he tidied up his living room, I was able to stand back and fully take in my surroundings. The house was eternally dark, despite the 65 and sunny forecast for the day. It was furnished with orange colors and styles dating back to the 1970s and the smell of cigarettes was potent, all but knocking me off my feet. We walked into what I assumed was the living room-turned-music-room that housed an impressive grand piano and vast collection of CDs and musical compositions. Two black shelves stood tall at the back of the room, sheet music spilling out from every angle.
Mr. Selesner sat down in front of the piano and called me over to him. As we sat side by side, I still questioned whether I would be able to stick it out with this man for the next hour, let alone any future lessons. “Play me something,” he said coolly. All I knew at the time were a few songs from memory which I began to play as best I could. From my peripheral, I saw him studying the movement of my hands across the keys and hoped he wasn’t doing so disapprovingly. When I finished, I looked up at him, bracing myself for the anticipated criticism. To my surprise, my new piano teacher complimented me on my ear for music and said he saw immense potential. I could feel myself slowly relaxing in his presence as we dove head-on into our first lesson.
Maybe I would give this guy a shot after all.
Walking the mall, I kept a close watch on time. It felt like one of the longest hours of my life and I wondered if Mr. Selesner would be successful in getting Kristina to utter more than her usual one to two-word sentences.
Our talks ventured from music, to literature, to geography, and then, to just everyday life. I was amazed at what a conversationalist this old guy was. He was opinionated, had razor-sharp wit, and could talk the paint off the walls. Most importantly, he was someone with whom I could somehow relate. I no longer felt intimidated by the years he had on me, and if I closed my eyes, it was almost as if I was talking to one of my peers. I left Mr. Selesner’s house feeling completely proven wrong, but I was oddly okay with it.
That first piano lesson was the beginning of an important learning experience and friendship for Kristina, who up until that point had never spent time alone with anyone above the age of 65 other than her grandparents. These were uncharted waters for a kid who at that time barely wanted to be within ten feet of her parents for an hour’s time, let alone an elderly stranger.
But before our eyes, the unexpected occurred.
With each lesson, I gained a better understanding of the piano and of Mr. Selesner himself. He was brilliant, and it didn’t take me long to realize that there was a lot I could learn from him. He had so many stories to tell about his own experiences as a performing pianist, and later, as a junior high school music teacher. I could tell he was dying to share them with the world, or whoever would listen anyway. Our lessons would go by in one, colorful flash of an hour.
We all could not seem to get enough of Gene. Following Kristina’s lessons my husband Greg and I enjoyed hearing him tell stories of his experiences playing the Borscht Belt circuit in the Catskills with stars like Harry Belafonte, Barbra Streisand and Alan King. Gene was big on “name that tune” and would keep us on our musical toes by drilling us with a vengeance until we summoned the correct answers. He took delicious glee in stumping us.
My weekly lessons with Mr. Selesner became a routine part of my life and were just about necessary to my sanity. They were my escape from the stresses and anxieties of high school, college preparation and everyday life. During this time, the soothing sounds of the piano would transport me to a place where my troubles were nonexistent. After the lesson, Mr. Selesner and I would shoot the breeze and talk about current affairs and books. If there was one thing he loved more than music, it was the written word. He wanted to know what and who I was reading. Mr. Selesner enjoyed a good read almost as much as a melodic sonata by Mozart.
Indeed, Gene was a true character, full of life and enthusiasm in his love of music, art, books, politics and good food. He had a wonderful, dry sense of humor. In a note to Kristina, Gene wrote: Dear Kris, Saw the article on your winning squeeze bunt. Congratulations! And you’ll always be a winner. Hope you’re settling on your college of choice. By the way, can you still tell the difference between the black and the white keys? Love to your parents and as much to you. -Gene Selesner. Soon Greg and I were trading books and recipes with Gene, and were introduced to his lovely lady friend, Honey, herself an artist whose paintings adorned Gene’s music room.
On Saturday nights our family would head to Cooke’s Inn for dinner and to listen to Gene entertain diners on a small white piano like a seasoned lounge performer, where he also enjoyed playing “name that tune” to test our music IQs. It wasn’t enough that we could name the title of songs, we also had to name their composers. Gene’s playing would, without fail, lift people from their seats and onto the floor singing and dancing like Broadway performers. Gene knew exactly which tunes would elicit these Broadway moments, and quite skillfully, slipped them in between dinner and dessert. Afterwards, Cooke’s Inn guests raised to their feet to cheer and applaud Gene and all those who spontaneously joined him to share their own talents.
It became evident to me that Mr. Selesner’s main passion in life was music. His face would light up every time he heard the word “concerto” or spoke about the brilliant, yet troubled composers of ages past. Mr. Selesner once told me that music was more of a feeling than a sound. The more time I spent with him, the more I understood what he meant by that. Through his stories, I realized that the piano had become a vehicle he used to transport himself through a gateway to opportunity and adventure. The piano had taken him so many places he never expected to go.
One place Kristina never expected to go was on the bench in front of the little white piano at Cooke’s Inn, when one Saturday night Gene took great delight in introducing his student, and invited her to play a piece they had been working on together that week. Greg and I braced ourselves for Kristina to decline the invitation, but instead, she approached the piano with complete confidence and played beautifully for the crowd. Nobody was more proud of Kristina than her mentor, who basked in the resulting applause with an almost fatherly pride and joy.
One day it all became clear to me. From all outward appearances, Mr. Selesner’s dim, smoky house seemed unappealing and gloomy, but to him it was paradise. There in that unassuming music room he created a sanctuary to do what he loved most in the world – playing the piano. During that moment of clarity, I put all my superficial judgments aside, and instead reveled in how he was able to achieve so much self-fulfillment. It made me aspire to find the same kind of passion and peace in my own world.
Gene Selesner enjoyed a life long love affair with music. Upon his retirement from School District 3, he continued to teach music privately to both students and adults, and also directed the Choir at West Hills Methodist Church. In addition to his weekend gig at Cooke’s Inn, he wrote and performed original scores for silent films shown at the Huntington Cinema Arts Centre.
Knowing Mr. Selesner not only gave me a deeper appreciation and connection with music, but also gave me something even more valuable. Our friendship showed me that outward appearances and the judgments we pass on people mean absolutely nothing. I now look back foolishly to the first day we met, only to realize how narrow my view of people and the world was.
On October 23, 2008, just before Kristina was able to put the finishing touches on her college application essay about Gene Selesner, Honey called us to share the sad news that he had suddenly passed away. Some time later Cooke’s Inn closed, ending an era marked by the fabulous food of Juanita Cooke, combined with the lively piano entertainment of Eugene Selesner enjoyed by so many on Saturday nights.
As I sat at his funeral service and watched people get up one after another to speak their piece about this marvelous man, I thought about the countless lives he had touched during his eighty two years. Many people, like me, had the blessing of having been taught by, or having simply known, Mr. Selesner. With both tears and a smile, I entertained images of him in heaven shooting the breeze with Cole Porter, Chopin, and many other great pianists in history.
While countless junior high school students, private students, music colleagues and friends alike have discovered through Gene Selesner the power and magic of music in connecting and celebrating humanity, Kristina especially learned a profound life lesson. I think Gene would be proud to know that she is now forging her own path in college to enter the arts and entertainment world as a filmmaker, in part, fueled by his own passion for the arts, his friendship, and last but not least, the confidence he bestowed in this once reticent teenager.