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Out of the Woods / Memories of a father: His everlasting spirit is with me

Published 11:52 am, Wednesday, March 27, 2013
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Even though my father died 58 years ago today at the young age of 54, his birthday is both a happy and sad occasion for me. Why? Because his everlasting spirit is still with me.

He was a quiet, gentle man who loved to make people laugh with his puns, helped people enjoy life by taking an interest in them, and helped people to see better by examining their eyes as an optometrist. He was a warm-hearted person who had an inviting way about him.

As a child, I recall visiting him in his modest, glass-windowed corner office in a building in the Bronx where he was the only white-collar worker managing a team of men and women who manufactured eyeglass lenses for a major optical company.

He spent more time on the factory floor, rolling up his sleeves and working the lathes, than he did in his office. He made certain the team enjoyed their work. He related well with every one of them. Among his workers were people of all national origins and people of color.

This was the 1930s and 1940s. He was a man way ahead of the times.

He also taught me the meaning of civic responsibility, and of national pride. Although he had been too young for World War I and too old to enlist in World War II, he took his duty to his country seriously. He volunteered to be our apartment building captain of air raid wardens.

Time after time, when confronted by someone else -- say, for example, another driver who cut him off on the road -- he would keep his calm and let the other fellow go. I would ask him why he let people get away with what I perceived as taking advantage of him. He would find a reason to excuse the other person's bad behavior instead of returning the fire. I often thought of him as a man who truly turned the other check.

I remember one summer in the 1930s when we wanted to spend a weekend on a beach on Long Island. My mother, my sister Esther and I hopped into his car. But as we cruised along the side roads of Long Island beach towns, there were signs on every house: RESTRICTED.

I asked my father why he did not confront one of the innkeepers and insist on renting some rooms for us. He would excuse this form of blatant anti-Semitism by saying they did not understand what they were doing. "It's their problem," he would tell me.

Dad was artistic. He liked to sketch and play the violin. He formed a chamber music group which played regularly in our living room, and he joined an orchestra in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, where we lived in an apartment house.

A believer in the ecumenical approach to religion, he was a Reform Jew who started an interfaith movement in Riverdale in which clergymen and rabbis and other their congregations visited one another's houses of worship.

He taught me, by his example, how to work hard. And how to play hard. My father was my biggest fan when I played football in high school. Until he was well into his late 40s, he would play softball with me and my friends.

He was always involved with my school and in our community. He joined the Fathers and Sons Club at my high school and was elected president; he joined the B'nai B'rith lodge and became its president; he started a new reform temple in the community that emphasized prayer and spiritual values instead of material belongings.

After college, I was drafted into the Army during the Korean War. My father told me he was proud to have a son in the military. When I returned to civilian life in 1954, Dad helped me get my first job. I had been looking for a newspaper reporter's job for months while collecting unemployment. Dad called a fellow optometrist in nearby Mount Vernon, N.Y., who knew the editor of the Mount Vernon Daily Argus.

Six months later, the Washington Post called me to fill a job I had previously applied for as a night police reporter stationed at police headquarters downtown -- 6 p.m. to 3 a.m., including weekends -- for $50 a week. I was delighted. The way I looked at it, I was doing what I had always dreamed of and I was getting paid on top of it!

My father also taught me something about courage in the face of extreme adversity. He had changed jobs at age 50 and had hit the road as a regional manager (a fancy title for traveling salesman) for a competing optical company. However, because he had let himself get out of shape and had become a chain cigar smoker, he no longer exercised. He suffered a near-fatal heart attack from the stress of driving such long distances. His territory included New England and parts of Canada.

Bedridden at home with the doctors giving him not long to live, he held on as long as he could without asking anything from the rest of us. Fortunately, my mother, Fannie J. Klein, was a successful practicing lawyer and on the faculty of the New York University Law School. I offered to quit my jobs and take up his sales route. He would not hear of it.

He insisted that I go on with my career. In 1955, I drove up from Washington every week to be with him during my two week days off. During one of these visits, while he was talking to me, he felt faint. I caught him as he started to fall. He died in my arms.

That's why his birthday is both a happy and sad occasion for me. More happy, however, because the memory of the time I spent with him has kept me going all these years. His name: Albert M. Klein.

Woody Klein is a Westport writer. His "Out of the Woods" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at woodyklein12@gmail.com