Reflections on My Father - He Did It His Way
My father, Jerome A Gordon, arguably the most accomplished and “colorful” non-celebrity I had known or could know, passed away last week at 87, a few days after falling down a flight of stairs, and just a week after celebrating our daughter’s wedding (Ranana & Benjamin). I share his remarkable story.
Given his regular workouts, his healthy eating, and that his mother lived until 103, if it were not for his accident, we expected him to live, and vibrantly so, until 100 or more. Unfortunately, he apparently took a wrong turn in the middle of the night, fell down the steps and fractured several vertebrae, cracked ribs, and damaged his spleen. His family mourners included my mother, Beverly (63 years of marriage), four children and their spouses, 13 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren. He was proud of the 24 biological descendants, and with spouses, 38 members of his family (and still counting).
I opened my eulogy with his favorite song, “My Way.” Written by Paul Anka and sung popularly by Frank Sinatra, it fit my father perfectly. He did things his way, making his own path, ignoring advice, not being limited by others’ ideas, and breaking new ground. His resume was long, varied, extraordinary, and his bold and daring character included many vivid episodes.
He ran fast, literally and metaphorically. Running for Snyder High School in Jersey City, New Jersey, he won a race at the Penn Relays (the oldest and largest track and field competition in the US hosted by U Penn) in 1948, and soon afterwards he ran away from home to enlist in the US Air Force. Because he was underage, he forged his parents’ signatures (just one of his many defiances.)
He served in the US Air Force for five years (1948-1953), including in the Philippines. He became a supply staff sergeant but did more. His initial job, which I better understood later in life, was as a football player and a boxer. Soldiers need entertainment (such as musicians) for morale, and this was a real job. His brothers proffered only one piece of advice: DON’T VOLUNTEER! Soon after arriving, an officer asked for volunteers to fly and, ignoring his brother’s counsel, immediately my father’s hand shot up. He flew target planes. As a kid, I would shake my head and tell him, “It was bad enough that the enemy intended to shoot at you, but you volunteered to have your own soldiers do so?”
As a kid and as a teen, my father was not much of a student. In high school he would be asked to “visit” the principal’s office from time to time. But when he returned from military service, not only did he work full-time in retail, but he took advantage of the GI Bill to earn his college degree at night, from St Peter’s College in Jersey City, NJ.
My father wanted to be a businessman, and opened a children’s shoe store in Cranford, NJ, which I remember. He moved that store to Old Bridge and then bought another store, Giddens, in Perth Amboy. A fire forced him to relocate the latter store to Metuchen, just a few minutes’ drive from our house in Edison. Later he would co-own a third store. I recall cartons filled with Buster Brown shoes with the address label of St Louis, MO.
But he lost interest in the shoe business and had a desire to be a teacher. In the late 1960’s he took a position in an all-Black high school in East Orange, in the DECA (Distributive Education) program which targeted those students who did not intend to go to college. He taught them business skills -- marketing, design, interviewing -- to prepare them for work.
Our neighborhood in Edison was a typical suburban town, largely Jewish and Italian and Irish descent. It was all white. So when about a dozen Black teens came to our house, on the way to a competition in Texas, it made an impression. His students won some awards at the competition, and when my father chose to take a position at Cedar Ridge High School in Old Bridge, near his store, these kids wrote him end-of-the-year love letters. For many, this was the first person (or male) to show them real love, teach them useful skills, and take them beyond their local limitations. He was a real “To Sir, With Love,” teacher. While I never heard a racist comment from my parents, his experience surely affirmed his and our embrace of all people.
Teaching and working part-time in the shoe store, my father then went on, in his 40’s, to earn an MA from Rutgers. Then he continued his education at Temple University, earning an ED D, (doctorate), and writing his thesis on Distributive Education in NJ. He was always proud of what he earned and “Dr. Gordon” meant a great deal to him. He then added a psychology degree, and opened two clinical offices, one in our home and another in Old Bridge. He was now in his 50’s. Still ambitious, he applied to and was accepted at Temple medical school, staying for a semester or a year, until he decided he didn’t have anything more to prove.
By 1991, after more than 20 years of teaching, he sold the businesses and retired to Port St. Lucie, Florida, near the spring home of his beloved NY Mets. In Florida he began a new stage of life, a poster boy for active retirement. For the next 27 years he was a volunteer with the police department and volunteered at a local clinic twice a week. He had articles written about him and won service awards.
Why we are who we are, and why we do what we do, is not absolutely clear. In my father’s case, he may have been genetically born to be an overachiever, a risk-taker, a defier of conventional wisdom. He wore a necklace with a pendant: E=MC2. There is much more to his life story, and I will set it out. But in his case, it was also born of pain.
He often shared memories of being unwanted. He was born on September 29, 1931, the youngest of three brothers, in the early years of the Great Depression. His father, a house painter, had built up some assets, but lost it all. My father repeatedly told me that he heard his father say, “Jerry came at a bad time.” Furthermore, he would tell me the story that his brothers had no memory of him as a kid. He became angry at his mother when he found out that she paid someone to play with him.
His father, he said, never paid much attention to him. He would run to help him, but did not receive love. (He later explained his father’s distance as due to seeing his brothers being beheaded in Russia.) In response, my father would do things to deliberately annoy his father, among them, revving up his motorcycle engine near the house and painting his father’s red bricks, white.
A kid whom he strongly disliked lived across the street. My father owned a BB gun and would shoot at his door, trapping him in his house. The kid’s father told my dad’s father that my dad would end up dead or in prison.
But there was one person whose words meant a great deal to my father, his brother’s father-in-law, Mr. Hock. He said that my father would outshine them all. My father’s motivation, therefore, may have been natural and also may have been driven by pain and by hope.
Among his notable activities -- he owned a plane (first a Cessna, then later a P-210). In addition to travel within the US (he once crashed his plane in a lake in Tennessee, swimming to safety; he believed one of his gas tanks had been siphoned), in 1989 he piloted his plane to Moscow. Apparently he was intercepted by Soviet defense authorities. There he met with Soviet Jews at the Moscow synagogue. Moreover, either on the way to or back from Russia, he or his co-pilot forgot to lower the wheels for a landing and severely scraped the plane’s belly in Norway.
Among the transportation vehicles he owned in Florida: a boat, a motorcycle, and a golf cart which he drove in the area. Of the boat he told me a lesson he learned: “The second best day of your life is when you buy a boat; the best day is when you sell it.” He also co-owned a racing horse, a trotter, Grand Prince.
In the 1970’s -- during the summers of teaching, he would install irrigation systems -- I worked with him and did not like it. He also personally installed, in our backyard, a redwood deck, the foundation of which was cut telephone poles. The holes had to be dug with a post-hole tool, to sink them deep into the ground; then he constructed support beams and cross beams which had to be tarred for protection -- I did some of that and I did not like that either. He also, while recovering from an operation in a wheelchair, built a color TV from a kit. Finally, I recall him sitting with a few other men at our kitchen table working on a business product -- it was called “Shoppers Savings Coupons” -- for the Metuchen businesses. The booklets were filled with coupons for discounts which provided advertising for the business and savings for the customer -- it was the forerunner to the “Entertainment Books.”
Summers were usually at the nearby Mirror Lake Beach Club where my father would play softball. Earlier in life he golfed, and took it up again in Florida. He was a devoted fan of the Mets and the Jets. He took us to Expo ‘67 in Montreal and on the way back to Cape Cod. In 1973, he bought a trailer hitched onto our Ford LTD, and we went from NJ to Denver and back, seeing sites like Mt Rushmore and the Truman Library in Independence. But, he threw his back out in Denver, and my mother was pressed into service; she had to drive the car and trailer back to NJ.
As I noted and have shown, my father was colorful, pushing the envelope. Here are a few of my favorite illustrations.
My father and mother met in the fall of 1954, on a Dude Ranch in New York. Meanwhile, for New Years’ Eve, my mother, attractive and popular, had a date coming from Boston to her Lower East Side residence in New York City. However, my father coaxed his phone number from my mother, and he called the young man, introduced himself as her brother, and said that she was sick and could not keep the appointment.
As a kid, he hung out with a group of AZYF friends who liked to have fun. At 16 years old, they were attending a local political event and a favor was needed to transport something. They volunteered and my father drove. In New Jersey, however, 17 was the age for a driver’s license, and sure enough, he turned the corner and crashed into a parked car. Worse, the vehicle was the official car of the Chief of Police. A few days later, a back-dated driver’s license came to his home.
My father was a devoted NY Jets fan. We had season tickets at Shea Stadium and with him I attended the only championship game that the Jets have ever won. My parents went to the Super Bowl in Miami, an historic game where the Jets beat the heavily-favored Baltimore Colts 16-7. My father attended wrapped in a blanket, in the Miami heat, because he had a fever.
I interrupt this story by noting that the last, brief exchange we had, was when I visited him in the hospital on Sunday afternoon. The NY (football) Jets had beaten the Colts, in a game that my sister had bought tickets for him to attend. This was the 50th anniversary season of the Jets beating the then Baltimore Colts in the historic 1969 Super Bowl. He had to settle for watching this game on TV in the hospital, and in our last words, he told me that the Jets were 3-3.
Back to the story: The Jets then moved to the Meadowlands in NJ and we retained our four seats. My father had had hair transplants, which in those years included getting plugs and incurring bleeding. He would leave the facility with a white towel and bloodstains on it. I remember cringing whenever I saw him with it. One day, he left the transplant facility and wandered into the NY Jets’ offices. The receptionist saw him and exclaimed, “What happened?” He responded, “I just came from brain surgery.” Several days later my father received a call from the President of the NY Jets offering to upgrade his location to his personal seats -- lower level 50 yardline seats. My father accepted, and so there we sat for many years.
Finally, for their 60th anniversary, my father treated the family to a four-day cruise. One night, the entertainment was a modified “Newlywed Game” -- three couples were chosen by the audience to answer a couple of questions. To win the spot, my father unbuttoned his shirt and gave a “Tarzan yell.” I cringed. On stage, he was periodically outrageous and my parents were entertaining.
The show was broadcast on the ship’s in-house television, and was looped throughout the rest of the trip. In the halls, people would come to them and greet them approvingly. At 84, they were celebrities!
My father identified strongly as a Jew, but in a non-religious sense. He fought against anti-Semites when confronted in his youth and at St Peter’s college and elsewhere. We belonged to a congregation in Edison, NJ, and he regularly took us to Friday night services, and my parents sent me and my brother to Hillel Academy Day School in Perth Amboy; for me this was a life-directing experience. He occasionally attended services in Florida and made a significant contribution to the local Chabad. He visited Israel several times, the first in the 1970’s with my mother, and several other times celebrating simchas.
This leads to a final story. In the 1970’s my father proposed a fund-raising and social event for the Beth El congregation Men’s Club: A Cadillac dinner dance raffle. Tickets would be sold, and the winner drawn at a dinner dance (tickets were eliminated throughout the night, so drama built). But the Board thought it was too risky. My father boldly volunteered to cover any losses (even though we did not have much money then), and it became a success for many years. One time, my parents shared the winning ticket on my birthday).
There are many stories I cannot share. He pushed the envelope even further. But he lived a full life, accomplished much, especially considering his early life, defied conventional thinking, and in his last months, lived to travel to three beritot (brisses) for his great-grandsons (in NJ, a month later in St Louis, and a month later in Los Angeles), and to dance the mezinka around us at his granddaughter’s wedding.
He lived “a life that’s full, he travelled each and every highway,” at times he “bit off more than he could chew, but when there were doubts, he ate it up and spit it out,” “he laughed and cried, he had few regrets, the records shows, he took the blows,” and did it his way.