Memorial Day Memories

Because it's Memorial Day, I've been thinking about my parents. Although my father wasn't a veteran (because he was in management at a defense plant), my mother was in the Women's Army Corps as a nurse. I've gotten a lot of requests for copies of the eulogy I gave for my father last month, which is subtitled "Nine and a Half Decades in Nine and a Half Minutes". Here it is:

I remember two things about my father’s term as President of the CT Association of Realtors. The first was that he brought the President of the United States to speak at the state convention (which almost didn’t happen because, when the advance team called our house, my sister thought it was a joke and hung up on them). The second memory is of his stump speech at Realtor dinners around the state. It spelled out REALTOR, beginning with R is for resilience, and going on to E for enthusiasm and A for attitude. In his typical double-time style, he raced to the end, leaving out a different letter each time. My mother would say, “Herb, I’m not going to drive around the state to listen to you misspell Realtor.” And he would reply “But you’re the only one who notices.” I used to think that was because they were partying and not listening, but I now realize that, if you knew my father, resilience, enthusiasm, and attitude said it all—the rest was unnecessary. I’ve spent much of this week reflecting upon what made him so special, and why everyone here has a Herb story, and I think it comes down to three gifts: a gift for life; a gift for friendship; and the power of positive thinking.

His gift for life began at birth in NYC, though the family moved to New Haven when he was a baby. His father came to work on the Yale Bowl, then started his own construction company. My father, living in North Haven, rode the streetcar to the nearest school in New Haven, stopping at the pool hall or the movie theater too often to have been a scholar. His favorite childhood memories were of driving his parents’ car through the corner of Church and Chapel when he was 14 and they were away for the weekend, and of saving up all year to go to Savin Rock for an evening. His father lost his business during the Depression, so my father went to work for A.C. Gilbert, whose paper boy he had been, for .25 cents an hour ($10 a week). He rose quickly through the ranks, and was deemed crucial to the war effort when they converted to a defense plant, having 2000 people reporting to him when he was 27. After the war, he had a very active social life before his marriage at 37—he was engaged three times, or, as he put it, three women thought they were engaged to him. One was a star in the Ice Capades, but he skated quickly away. He got a form of polio in the early 50s,and met my mother during his lengthy hospitalization. He decided to start his own business when I was a toddler and my sister was a newborn, using his severance pay to buy my mother a mink stole. He worked all the time in those early years. My sister and I remember helping him to clean the office on Saturdays and riding around in the trunk with the open house signs on Sunday. He was a whirlwind of activity—sales, charitable boards, a brief run for Congress, state delegations, and more. The best story I’ve heard in the last week was a call he made with a friend to a big company for the United Way. The man told him that everyone was human, and that we all put our pants on in the morning one leg at a time. My father said “Not me. I put both legs in at once, pull them up, and get going.” There was no time to waste. He rented a bike on his first trip to Europe rather than tour the tulip gardens, as he remarked that, if you’ve seen one tulip, you’ve seen them all. This applied to our family as well. When I graduated from law school and business school, he declined to come to graduation, stating that if you’ve seen one Harvard graduation, you’ve seen them all. This lack of sentimentality carried over into other realms. My sister’s horse was named Prince, and he painted her horse trailer “The Prince and the Pauper”. He told me that Norm and I couldn’t get married before 4 PM, since “there’s no sense in ruining a perfectly good golf day.” (note the time of this service). The only word of Spanish he learned in all their travels to their house in Spain was manana, and he didn’t like it. But he enjoyed every day to the fullest—every hamburger was the best one he ever ate, every occasion was a party (and he was the guest of honor), and there were wonderful opportunities everywhere.

He never had regrets, and he rarely looked back. One of the few times was when he told me that he’d like to find his Uncle Frank, who had emigrated to Canada. This was a few years ago, and I asked him when he had last heard from Uncle Frank. He said that it thought it was about 1920! He had every faith that we could track him down. Needless to say, Uncle Frank had died, but we found his son—my father’s first cousin—in Saskatoon. He was also forward-looking about change of all kinds. He was proud of being the first in the real estate industry to run billboards, full-page ads, radio and TV commercials. He had a car phone in 1968, when you had to go through the marine operator to place your call—totally impractical with a five-minute commute, but so typical. At the end of his life, he had a Facebook page and an IPOD shuffle (although he called it his “music box”).

Part of his exuberance was because of his gift for friendship. He loved his friends of all ages, old and new. His strong handshakes, big kisses, the spring in his step, and the twinkle in his eye will all be remembered as hallmarks of his entrances. The phrase “comfortable in his own skin” probably wasn’t around for his first 75 years, but boy, did it describe him. He never felt superior or inferior to anyone. Think of the self-confidence it took for a high school graduate who didn’t go to war to marry an Army nurse with two graduate degrees. He had friends who were professors and friends who were laborers, friends in their 20s and friends in their 90s, and he treated them all the same way.

He delighted in doing things for his friends. My mother said that, if she ever came back, she’d want to come back as one of Herb’s friends. He loved to plan presents, parties, and pranks, as well as serious endeavors. He was born before women could vote, yet was asked to nominate Jean Handley as the first woman at the Quinnipiack Club. He waged two campaigns to integrate the New Haven Country Club, succeeding the second time. He made everything possible, and everything more fun.

And that was due to his third gift—the power of positive thinking. Buck has mentioned his optimism, and he had that in spades, but that’s a disposition. Attitude is a willed trait. He believed that there wasn’t much that couldn’t be changed with a change in attitude. He applied that to his personal life first. When my mother died, we were worried about him, after finding him sitting in his office crying. A few months later, he told my sister and me that he was 81, and he could curl up and die, or he could decide to love again. He then met Martha, and had 12 and ½ happy years with her.

He applied it to his community work as well. He loved to raise money for non-profit causes, and he didn’t mind asking, nor did he waste time doing it. He planned and executed ambitious campaigns, and took great pride in the good that they did.

He used to say that some people had MBAs, and he had RLC—rat like cunning. But he also thought big, and lived that way. When he was in his late 60s, he and Don Lippincott developed Exit 9, building a bridge and road and selling them to the town against future tax revenues. At that age, he risked everything—putting up his house, his insurance, and signing personally on the notes. How many of you would do that? And he turned around and did it again in his 70s with Whitney Grove Square. When his partners went bankrupt, along with the contractor, he put in millions of his own money to finish the project, losing all of it. When it was sold years later to Yale, he sold the garage to Simon Konover in probably the largest deal in the region ever done on a handshake. Accountants called WG a failure, but he never did. He would have said that he changed the landscape of New Haven, cemented it as a residential city, paved the way for the Audubon Arts District, and arguably moved the center of commerce up from the Green. He was very proud of it, and proved it by moving there.

He always said that, if all else failed, he could be a bartender. He carried that attitude through everything he did, and it was infectious. The next time you are in a tough situation, think of him and try a little harder. Dig a little deeper. Improve your outlook. Make lemons into lemonade. You’ll be channeling Herb, and ensuring his legacy.

It’s ironic that he died on the day of the Boston Marathon. His life was a marathon, spanning almost a century, and it was surely a race that he won. He would have received a gold medal for the number of times he showed up on the short list of life influences for those who knew him. So many of you have described him as the embodiment of the greatest generation, and as a giant—a funny description for someone who weighed 120 pounds, but he was. He was also eminently lovable. In his case, the whole was greater than the sum of the parts—something about the almost magical combination of personality, character, and presence allowed him to leave an indelible imprint on more lives than almost anyone I’ve ever known. All the sayings are true—an edition of one, he came one to a box, they broke the mold. We will not see his like again.

The marathon that he ran for the last two years was one that he knew he couldn’t win. And like an athlete with a serious injury, he didn’t try to fool himself. He fought while he could, confounding his doctors with his staying power, and Martha kept him alive for a long time, by guarding him ferociously and loving him so deeply. He went out as he wanted to—calling a family meeting on Saturday night to plan this service (when he didn’t appear to be sick), kissing all the Hospice nurses by Sunday night, and dying on Monday night. It may surprise you that the man who never said die died peacefully, with grace, and gratitude for the life he lived and the people he touched and who touched him along the way. He wrung the very most out of that tired old body, but his indomitable spirit lives on in all of us, in the company he founded, and in the people and places he made better. He wanted us to celebrate, not grieve, so there’s a rousing recessional hymn and birthday cake at the Lawn Club (he would have said that 3 days til his 95th was close enough for government work), as well as hundreds of balloons emblazoned with the names of organizations he supported, students who received his scholarships, and his favorite Winston Churchill saying: “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.” Please take one as you leave the reception, and release it somewhere in Greater New Haven. It’s hard to imagine him resting, let alone in peace; it’s easier to think of him as being on to the next great adventure. If you close your eyes, you may be able to imagine him bounding into heaven, booming “I LOVE IT!” And, if you do, just whisper back, “No more than we loved you.”