19 November 2010
Mark Perlin © 2010
Four score and two years ago, my father was born in this country, a child of immigrants. Two traits distinguished him from anyone else I have ever known. The first was his boyish creative enthusiasm for every challenge he threw himself into. He never gave up. Even New York University relented after fourteen years and four different thesis committees, and awarded him a doctoral degree.
The second trait was his deep warmth and consideration for every human being. He didn't follow a golden rule of treating others as he would want to be treated. He lived a platinum iridium rule of respecting and helping other people in the ways that they needed to be treated, irrespective of his own concerns.
I remember his going to visit a third grader in his school who was in for a short stay at Rockland Psychiatric Hospital. I asked him why he was giving her a gift containing plastic scissors. He replied that she needed something constructive and creative to do, without the possibility of harming herself.
Those traits of boyish creative energy and outsized human compassion conspired together in a letter he once wrote, perhaps one of the greatest letters of all time.
Dad was then principal of PS 59, on Bathgate Avenue in the Bronx, and the fourth floor roof leaked like a sieve. That roof invited in the autumn rain, causing an educational, physical and moral hazard to his suffering students. Repeated entreaties to the Livingston Street Board of Education went unheeded. School boards need to be cattle prodded into action, but Dad was only a principal, not a superintendent or some other gonsa macher.
Not accepting no for an answer, and with ever increasing concern for his soggy students, Dad wrote a letter. He shared with the board his practical solution to the irreparable roof and its Niagral rivulets that cascaded down upon the heads of his charges. Evidently, the Acme Circus Tent company could supply the school with huge 40 foot umbrellas to cover the children's heads, keeping the desks dry, and diverting rain water out to the classroom's edge.
Oh yes, he wrote, he understood the Board of Education's most likely objection to the Acme plan – wouldn't the redirected water merely puddle onto the floor, and drain through the classroom ceilings below? Not to worry, he reassured them. He had requisitioned enough free wastepaper baskets from central supply to catch the dripping runoff. Volunteer students earning extra credit would change the baskets every hour, and just toss the collected water out the windows!
He provided reasonable cost estimates from Acme, to demonstrate the affordability of his proposed solution. After reading his fantastic letter, the city relented and fixed the roof. There was no Acme company, and there was no stopping my father.
You all have your own stories and fond recollections of Seymour's boyish energy and unbounded empathy. When I last saw him this summer, I was thinking about how he must see himself. As the perennial boy scout, the ever young mitzvah man, a tenacious Tintin always helping others because he could see the ways in which each person was less fortunate and more needful than he.
This, then, is how I hope to always remember my father. As the young resilient spirit whose conscious being was always centered on the concerns of other people, by those people, and for the people blessed enough to be within the radius of his orbit. Whose neshamah shall not perish from the earth.