October 10, 2006

More remarks

I'm collecting the remarks made at yesterday's memorial service for Grandpa. Brian's can be found here, Uncle Jonathan's, Uncle Alan's and Allen Raymond (Westport's Historian)'s are below:

Jonathan's remarks:

First, I want to echo what has been said already, and to thank you all for being here today. The response of friends and family to this occasion has strengthened all of us, and we thank you for that. I suppose there is nothing unusual about children and grandchildren speaking about their loss, but it doesn’t make it easier. Doug and I both found that we had been thinking about what we might say today for a long time. Still, the moment is here now, and grief is always surprising, now matter how well you prepare.

Our father lived a long life, didn’t he? 93 years is a long time. I think this surprised him, because he had a superstition about living longer than his father did. Once he passed 60, I think he really believed that the rest of his life was a gift. Maybe that explains the equipoise that settled over him in the last period of his life; maybe it was a lot of things. If his last years taught us anything, it was about his resiliency. His was a life of accomplishment, but also of great sadness; yet he always managed to survive the terrible events of his life and invent newer, better ones.

Samuel Ralph Sheffer was born in Baldwin, LI, and grew up over his father’s dry goods store. Oh, perhaps you didn’t know he had his name legally changed before he graduated from Columbia. I found his high school yearbook when I was 12 while snooping around the house. I stared at what was clearly his picture, and his nickname, “Sammy.” I was stunned. When he returned home from NY in the evening, I yelled out, “Hey, Sammy!” I think that night was when his hair started to turn grey.

A few years ago, when he was getting a little vague about what really happened and what sounded like a good story, he told me that the reason he was born in L.I. was that the family had to leave 138th St. and Grand Concourse in the Bronx because his sister, Isabelle, had fallen madly in love with a gentile. A few years ago he told me he met Gertrude Stein once. Who’s to know now, anyway.

My father had three older brothers, Harry, Simon and Eugene. “Simmy” as he was called, had swallowed one of those hissing whistles you put on your tongue, and to remove it, his thyroid gland was also removed. As a result, he never grew taller than about 4’10”, and I wore his cast off suits when I was a teenager.

My Uncle Gene played an enormous role in our lives. He contracted dystonia as a teenager, which caused his nervous system to degenerate into violent spasms that he endured his entire life. I called him “Uncle Wiggley” when I was a kid. Gene lived with us on and off during periods of convalescence, and despite this, was a hugely popular professor of French at Columbia, and had a lively off-campus life at his bungalow in East Hampton in the 1950s. He was a powerful presence in my father’s thought. Having Gene around made us a better family, and this quality of determination and grace that seemed to be a Sheffer trait, was shared by my father.

Although Dad didn’t discourse endlessly about himself, he never seemed to get to the end of a story in a hurry. I remember one Thanksgiving at which he took so long to tell a joke that many of the guests simply left the table. His Moses-like slowness of speech leant a certain gravity to his words; it probably also prefigured the silence of his last few years.

Being rendered nearly mute was just the last challenge of a life filled with dramatic difficulties. Dad saw the breadlines of the Depression as a teenager, and emerged from college and law school with a lifelong anxiety about money. As he became successful in sports advertising, he became a wealthy man always who felt himself to be poor.

My father wasn’t one of those veterans who go on about their service; in fact I learned about it only second hand. It’s impossible for me to imagine the devastation of being bombed into the wild, wide ocean, yet it doesn’t surprise me that he returned a battle-weary man. This part of his life was usually told to me by one of his oldest friends, the late Ruth Lipton, with whom I lived when I moved to NY in 1975. She said he used to stare out the window of their apartment for hours, finally forcing himself to get back into the swing of life.

Everything we are we get first from our parents; the rest is just chasing our own dreams. Whenever I think about music, I’m thinking of my mother. Whenever I watch sports on television, or even hear the drone of a sports announcer on a distant TV, I will always think of him. You’ve heard how much sports meant to Dad, from his days as the little man on the championship Columbia rowing team, to his career raising corporate support for the Olympics.. He played tennis on weekends, although “played” is perhaps not the right word to describe the men’s game that terrorized the suburbs. It was more of a pitched battle between men who never wanted to lose their competitive edge. It’s no wonder none of us ever took up tennis. Who could ever compete with that?

Even if they were not the ones he might have wanted for me, who else put those dreams there? He left us all with plenty to ponder. From my father I learned how to be short in the world; and how to charm women. I must have learned ambition from him as well, and what it means to try and rule your own world. Dad’s life was about conquering the terrible odds put in his path. As easy as my life has been in many respects, his was marked by some fairly awesome difficulties.

After the War, he found his calling professionally and built his family with my mother. The years rolled out, commuting daily on the train to NY, weekends of tennis and football and baseball on TV, and eventually his local political career. Home movies recorded children’s birthdays, marching bands on Main Street, graduations, and the rare vacations we all took together. It was all pretty much according to some unspoken plan, at least until my mother’s death in 1977.

His biggest struggle came in the years after my mother’s death. We all felt isolated in our grief, and Dad had to learn how to live without the world he so depended upon. I began to notice a change here and a change there, as he tried to connect to our mother through the things that she loved. He became so much more aware of things, like the fact that the house had a kitchen. One time I brought some friends from NY by, and somehow we ended up in my mother’s closet trying on her dresses and wigs, which were still hanging there. I found it very therapeutic. Dad called me the next day, convinced that one of my college friends, Peter Kazaras, had stolen a silver spoon from the kitchen. Peter and I both lost parents young: he used to call the decor of his apartment, “early dead mother.” We joked about the spoon for years; I told him last week he could keep it. We laughed.

In addition to discovering the kitchen, my father continued the subscriptions to the Boston Symphony that my mother attended religiously for years. Fortunately for me, his whole focus shifted in the last 25 years of his life, and he became much more aware of things like concerts. He loved coming in to Eos events in NY, and the night the orchestra performed for the Clintons and a distinguished audience at the White House in 1998 was a proud moment for him, a night of a lot of glamour, and a lot of forgiveness.

So many moments I remember: he once said to me while I was laboring through my Bach as a child, “You know, guys who play boogy woogy at parties are very popular.” I remember stuffing envelopes for his RTM campaigns, and I remember going to the meetings, so proud that my father was the one who got to tell Republicans (and some long-winded Democrats) to sit down. I remember him flexing his biceps when I was a kid, and when he was older, grabbing his fat stomach and bemoaning his lost abs. I remember fights in the car on drives to NY to see musicals, and the Darwinian struggle to find a parking place in Manhattan. I remember going to Yankee Stadium and getting the royal corporate treatment as we watched Mickey Mantle hit home runs, and Y.A. Tittle pass for the Giants. We were at his last game, when he knelt, exhausted in the end zone, his helmet off and his forehead bloodied.

Last, I want to acknowledge his genteel kindness to my partners. Christopher said last week that my father always made him feel welcome, even loved. Loss makes us all recall the joy and sadness of life. I want to thank my sister for her vigilance over the past years, which allowed me a measure of freedom. And Jamie, his most devoted helper for the last three years. Today we all recall him in our own ways, our words creating newer, fresher memories that others will pass on for us. In this way, we may live forever.

Alan Rabinowitz's Remarks:

draft October 5, 2006 for the October 9th Town Hall meeting

Greetings to those of you who knew Ralph as one of the grand old men of Westport. I thought it would be appropriate to add a bit of family folklore about the time, soon after World War II, when he got married to my oldest sister Betty and shortly thereafter moved to the community that I had known in my boyhood as a town of about 2,500 people. Ralph became a member of our Rabinowitz family just 60 years ago as my first brother-in-law. How I looked forward to having another male in the family, for I had only two older sisters and acres of older first cousins on my father’s side, all girls except for one male my age living far away. And both Ralph and I were, technically, Navy veterans, but I was still in training and he was home from the wars, laden with real stories of combat, the likes of which had not been heard in our house before. Beginning in the late 1920s, my parents spent three or four summer months in Westport, Dad with a daily commute to Manhattan. In the 1930s, they bought the Reynolds farm on Crosshighway and Bayberry Lane, for Westport then was full of farms. In fact, during the war I worked for Bob Warner on his Blue Ribbon Farm, plowing with a team of horses on cornfields he leased on North Avenue, fields that later became the site for Staples High. So it fell to Ralph and Betty to be the ones to teach my family of Manhattanites what it meant to be part of the national march of the GI Generation to the suburbs. Part of the land my parents owned became the site of Betty and Ralph’s first house of their own in Westport, and another part became a radar site during the Cold War. And there my stories can end, for there are folks here who know the reality far better than I do of the way in which the farms disappeared and the way suburban entrepreneurs like Ralph, commuting to the daily strife on Madison Avenue, developed the representative town meeting as a new form of governance and converted the Westport of my youth not only to the Westport of “Rally Round the Flag” but to the Westport of a great library, great schools, and great civic spirit. My thanks to you all.

Allen's Remarks:

Ralph Sheffer Memorial Service
Westport Town Hall

October 9, 2006

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen:

This is an amazing event, and it is being held in a remarkable room.

During Ralph Sheffer’s 16 years of service on the Representative Town Meeting – ten of those as the RTM’s Moderator – Ralph made history in this room, because this is where the RTM holds its monthly meetings.

And today, in this room, you and I are also making history.

We have come here from all walks of life, and all political persuasions. And we are – you and I – united as one as we gather in this room to honor Ralph.

I suspect that each one of you has a story to tell about Ralph, and I have a suggestion: When this memorial service is concluded, why not mingle with Ralph’s friends and perhaps ask a complete stranger, “What did Ralph Sheffer mean to you?”

Some will answer, “Ralph had the patience of Job,” and by that they’ll mean Ralph could keep his cool when all about him were losing theirs.

Others will answer – as they have to me when I ran into them this past week at a Rotary luncheon, or at a meeting of the Flood & Erosion Control Board, or as we talked on the telephone – that Ralph was “a really nice man.”

It doesn’t get any better than that.

I know each of you has stories you could tell us about Ralph – stories that invariably highlight his kindness, generosity and thoughtfulness. For me personally, Ralph put himself on a pedestal when, in 1957, as a fellow RTM member, he became the architect of my campaign to become Moderator, succeeding Herbert Baldwin, who had just been elected First Selectman.

(Incidentally, two years later Ralph Sheffer succeeded me as Moderator.)

You may reply, “There is nothing remarkable in Ralph helping you to be elected Moderator – that’s just Ralph being Ralph.”

True, but there was more to it than that; there was a twist. I was a 34-year-old, wet-behind-the-ears campaign manager for Herbert Baldwin – a Republican – while Ralph was a prestigious 42–year old Westport community leader – and a Democrat.

And so, in 1957 when the RTM members were voting to elect a new Moderator, Ralph, as my campaign manager, was asked to help count the ballots. When he had finished – but before the results were announced – he slipped into the seat next to me and whispered, with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face, “You got it!”

What a friend! I have never forgotten that smile, nor those joyful words from Ralph – “You got it.”

That was the beginning of a long civic partnership between Ralph and me, a partnership that culminated in the construction of the new Library.

If you happened to read my comments abut Ralph in the newspaper last week, you know that as president of the Library during those tumultuous years – tumultuous because we were building it on a dump, for goodness sake – I indicated we never would have raised enough money without Ralph.

That’s true – he was magnificent.

He asked…and invariably, he got.

He convinced one donor to turn his $25,000 pledge into a $300,000 donation. He convinced another donor to match that gift.

He negotiated the sale of the old library for $2,800,000, and smiled while the partners in that deal – whenever they saw Ralph or me – would hold their heads in their hands, as if to imply, “Why have you done this to us?”

Well, those are my stories, and I have a zillion more.

But you have your stories, too, and when this memorial service is concluded I hope, as I suggested earlier, that you will mingle with each other and compare notes on the Ralph Sheffer we all knew and respected.

And finally, before we leave this remarkable building and this remarkable event, it seems fitting that you and I have the last word.

And so, with tears in our eyes but joy in our hearts, we say…

…goodbye Ralph – and thanks for the memories.

Allen Raymond

Posted by Emily at October 10, 2006 12:30 PM
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