Received Wisdom is intended to capture the thoughts and experiences of older people in the belief that a lifetime of struggle, survival and joy – in other words, living – has endowed them with special insights and knowledge worth sharing.
“I would think the favorite time of life is always – always – the present. There’s no reason to believe that beautiful events that occurred in the past do not continue to occur now and in the future.”
Monroe Kaufman is the father of one of my best friends from high school. This interview took place at his home in New Rochelle, N.Y., in April 2012, a day before a joyful celebration in honor of his 90th birthday. He was born on April 18, 1922, in the Bronx, N.Y. During the Depression, he said, young people who couldn’t afford to go out on dates met in friends’ houses for “gatherings,” casual social affairs. It was at one such gathering, when he was 15 and she was 13, where he met his wife-to-be, Charlotte. “It must have worked because we’ve been married for 68 years.”
What was life like as a youngster?
I don’t have much of a recollection of the years prior to the Great Depression. I went to school and was interested in the usual sports, principally baseball. All the kids played baseball. We also played stickball, until the police came along and chased us away. You could play it in different ways. On the street the sewer covers were your bases. In addition there were many unfinished apartment buildings, because it was the Depression and there was no more money to complete the buildings. So we used the buildings as playgrounds. You could play stickball against the bare wall and hit it out across the street and onto a lot.
Were you a Giants fan?
I was a Dodgers fan. When the Dodgers moved out of Ebbets Field I moved with them in my respect and hopes. I’m still a Dodger fan.
You met Charlotte when she was 13?
Yes. At that time there wasn’t enough money to go out to movies or a date or dinner. We would meet in someone’s house, usually a girl’s house, and have what we called “gatherings.” A gathering just meant lot of young people getting together to talk, to sing, to dance, and have an opportunity to socialize. In that way I was drawn into one of the gatherings and I met my wife. We were very young. I was 15 or 16, she may have been 13 or 14. That was the first time we ever met each other. It must have worked because we’ve been married for 68 years!
We got married in 1943. I was in the Army and got a three-day pass to go home. We were married in a little shul on the Mosholu section in the Bronx. Our honeymoon consisted of going up to the Catskills. There were many hotels up there. We stayed at the Laurels Country Club, just for a couple of nights.
And when I came back I reported to my station, of course. I was in the Signal Corps at the time. At one point I had a wonderful assignment in the Presidio, San Francisco, which was known as the Country Club of the U.S. Army. It overlooked the San Francisco Bay Bridge.
From there I was assigned to go overseas into the Pacific Theater. But my brother [Roland] died. He was in the U.S. Navy and was serving on the USS Warrington. [The Warrington went down in an Atlantic hurricane about September 13, 1944. Two hundred and forty-eight of the ship’s 321 sailors died.] As a result I was excused from having to go overseas and remained stationed with the Signal Corps. Charlotte, who had been with me, went home to console my parents. [She also reported that she advocated fiercely to get Monroe out of overseas duty due to the family tragedy.] I got an emergency furlough and went home also. I was then assigned to Fort Dix as I recall and within a year I was discharged from the Army, at which time Charlotte was pregnant with Alan. We were very fortunate to get an apartment. It was a one-bedroom with a small kitchen. That was it. If you had anybody over to the house, they sat in the kitchen with you. When you went to the bed, the baby and the parents went to bed in the same room. Our daughter, Eileen, was born in January 1948.
Before I went into the Army I worked as a file clerk with an insurance company, Public Service Mutual Insurance. I went to college at night for a year or two. When I got out of the Army I rejoined the company. This time they trained me to be an insurance adjuster. By the time I retired, 50 years later, I was a vice president of the company.
You were with the same company your whole career?
Same one. It’s a small company, predominantly in the Northeast, and at the time it was one of the largest carriers (I think it still is) of hotels and apartment houses in the City of New York. They wrote business in New Jersey, Connecticut and New York.
I started as an adjuster, then I became a vice president of claims. I really wasn’t ready at the age of 65 to retire. But the work ethic had changed by that time, and I just could not get along with it. The work ethic was not the same as when I was brought up. That’s the way it goes. And I didn’t want any more of it and I retired.
You mean people didn’t want to work as hard?
That’s right. People took too many breaks during the day, they did not really apply themselves to get a day’s work for a day’s pay. That may have just been my attitude, but many other people felt the same way.
What were the important lessons you’d want to pass along?
One of the things I realized, much later on, was that I should have applied myself to a greater extent when I got out of the Army. We had the GI Bill of Rights, which helped servicemen go back to college and get their degree. The government paid for it. In my case, I had a family, I had to work to support us, and I did not take advantage of that. Later on I felt that I could have become an effective lawyer. [In my job] I was in a position to be right next to the law. As an adjuster you’re determining liability of a loss, an accident, and determining whether you want to defend the action or settle the action. I think it would have helped a great deal if I had become a lawyer in the negligence field.
It didn’t seem to impede your career at all.
No. But I think being independent, being your own boss, making your own decisions, that’s not the same thing as doing these things for a company. And many people availed themselves of the opportunity to go back to college and get their degree and move on from there.
In any event, we grew up with our family. I played a lot of tennis, which I always managed to get in by wheeling the baby or babies to the tennis courts, left them in the carriage when they were sleeping, and I’d go onto the courts and be able to play a little bit. [Laughs.]
Of course at this time Charlotte and I were very much involved in bringing up the children. You didn’t go out for dinner, you didn’t go to shows. You did not make much of a salary at the time; it was enough to maintain you, provided you did not spend your money on things that got much, much more popular later on.
We moved to New Rochelle when Alan was about eight and Eileen was about six. And within three or four years we decided we were going to take our first long vacation together as a family. I managed to get six weeks from the company, and we were going to go to the national parks out west. But unlike most people today, we drove from New York out west. When we got as far as the George Washington Bridge the kids said, “Are we there yet?”
We made a wonderful excursion of the parks, as far north as Jasper and as far south as Yellowstone and other parks. Just before we drove home, we took some horseback lessons. You go out with a leader and he will take you on certain trails and paths that you otherwise might not see.
Some time before that, maybe two or three months before, Charlotte regretfully had her first experience with cancer, a melanoma on the leg. It had to excised with radical surgery to make sure it didn’t spread. And we were as frightened as anyone else would have been at that time. But we had the most wonderful doctor, who said, after she had had her surgery and treatments: “You go out there, that will be the best medicine for Charlotte.”
She enjoyed the trip as much as we did. And even though she was limited, her enthusiasm was just as great as the kids and myself. We were all very proud of the way she responded to it.
Did you enjoy family life, bringing up children?
Very much so. We came up here to New Rochelle just a year or two before the problem of segregation of schools broke. [In January 1961 the New Rochelle Board of Education, through its neighborhood school policy, was found to be engaging in “de facto” segregation and ordered to desegregate. It was the first case of court-ordered desegregation in the north.] There is a school district in New Rochelle called the Lincoln School district, and all of the black people went to that school, and none of the other six or seven elementary schools in New Rochelle. The lawsuit was started to compel New Rochelle to integrate their schools, which the City resisted. The City lost its case on the trial and appeal levels and was almost ready to go up to the Supreme Court when people said, “Look, you’ve taken two losses already. Don’t nail it shut by going up to the Supreme Court.” And from then on, New Rochelle integrated, and that integration spread throughout the entire country. It was the first instance of busing, because buses were necessary to take the students to various other schools, not necessarily in their area.
Both our kids went to Mayflower, the local grade school, then Albert Leonard Junior High and New Rochelle High School. Subsequently they both went on to college; Alan to Lehigh and Eileen to Skidmore.
It was at this point, when the kids were off to college, when Charlotte and I had the opportunity to travel. We have done so a great many times since then. And I think it’s one of the great joys in life, to witness what goes on in other countries, get a little bit of a feeling of how other countries survive and what their standards are compared to our own.
Alan and Eileen both went on to law school and became lawyers. Eileen had one girl, Kim, and Alan had three girls. When Eileen’s daughter and Alan’s oldest daughter Allison were in their teens we took them, two or three times, on trips to Europe. And it was a joy to see them take in the sights.
One story stands out in my mind. I thought it would be a good idea to take them to Oxford, England, to let them see what the school looked like. They thought it was full of church buildings. And if you remember your history, most of the schools there originally were started by different religions on campus.
What else has given you great joy like that?
When we were 45 or so, Charlotte and I took up skiing. The kids, who were teenagers then, did too. And we spent many a holiday skiing together. I was extremely frustrated to see how quickly the kids took to it, and I never got out of what I called the “outhouse crouch.” But it’s a great sport. The kids are still skiing today. I just stopped about three years ago.
Then we got to the point where we were active grandparents, and now we are very active great-grandparents! We are fortunate to have six wonderful great-grandchildren. It’s marvelous to see how the generations grow and develop. Today the youngsters are so smart that it looks as if they are sponges, and they absorb all the knowledge so quickly and forget very little.
What are your views on death and dying?
At this point, I’m age 90. And of course we are all mortal. And I understand that I will face the end at some time. I’ve rationalized it to myself that I have had a wonderful life, a wonderful wife and children, and of course, grandchildren and great-grandchildren whom I’ve enjoyed tremendously. And that I think helps you to understand that you have done and accomplished enough to face the end, hopefully, without too much trepidation.
Charlotte and I have agreed that the end for us should be cremation. I do not believe that there is anything to be gained by retaining a gravesite. We’ll have our ashes distributed at significant places to us. For myself, it will be on the tennis court and ski slope, and for Charlotte, who loves the New York Botanical Garden, there is a bench that is endowed by us in her honor. And her ashes will be distributed there.
Do you believe in an afterlife?
No. Not at all.
How about God? Do you believe in God?
We are Jewish, but I do not necessarily believe in the religion as a crutch to help you out of some dark places. I enjoy the religion for its history and its background and for most of the beliefs that Judaism has for myself. But I do not believe that you have to prove your love of the religion by necessarily attending services at the temple. I respect people who do. But it’s just not for me. We belong to a synagogue, Temple Israel, because I want to support it, it does a good job. It’s just not relevant for me to attend services.
I do not believe in a God, but I respect people who get a great deal of relief when necessary by prayer and reading sections of the Bible that help them understand why they may be sad, at that moment, say for when they have lost a dear one. I respect them for their beliefs. But it is just not for me. And a lot of people get satisfaction using the temple as a place for their social life. They get a great deal of joy out of sharing the experiences of temple with their neighbors and one another. And that’s fine, that’s fine. I’ve just never been involved with that. I suppose my parents were never very interested in that very much.
How then do you account for the miracles of life – bringing children into the world, the development of man from lower animals?
There are no miracles, you know that. I respect the way life has originated in this world. And there is Darwin to explain it. I do not accept miracles. I think the explanation of animal development that occurred millions of years ago biologically can explain the development of man.
Do you think people are better off today, or years ago, say half a century ago?
There have been so many wonderful discoveries in the last 40 or 50 years, it is difficult to imagine how people were able to deal with business before that time. As an example, when you go into a bank today to make a deposit or withdrawal, everything is handled by that teller, so there is no back room work that follows. Charlotte worked in a bank when she was a youngster, in fact she was the head teller, and she describes the equipment that they had. Certainly there were no computers. If you had an adding machine you were lucky. And you had to square out your balance at the end of the day. If it didn’t square, you had to stay around until you could prove the balance was equal. Only then could you go home. The improvements made electronically have provided for an economy that certainly moves much faster and probably is much more helpful to consumers.
Of course there have been many opportunities for criminal conduct of operating these hedge funds etc. that make life difficult also. Like Madoff.
What about ethics? Spirituality? Do you think we’ve gone forward or backward?
Every generation has its own problems, and how do you measure that compared to the next generation? The Walker days, when he was mayor of the City of New York [1926-1932] and the shenanigans that were going on at that time – how do you measure that? Every generation produces its own dishonest problems. It’s not unusual. Now I think there’s great emphasis on that because the rewards are up in the millions and billions of dollars. So obviously there’s a greater effort made to try to get a piece of it, legally or not.
What’s a great day for you now?
[Laughs.] As I mentioned skiing and tennis are out. I’ve substituted swimming and treadmill for those activities. I try to do them as many days of the week as I can.
You married young. You have a wonderful marriage, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Do you feel especially blessed?
Very much so. Very much so. Life has had its problems, but all in all, if people could enjoy many of the simple things in life, such as family, love, activities, theater, concerts, plays, lectures. There is no end to things out there to keep you involved and content. And I participate in a great deal of that. Not as much as before but whatever I can.
What kinds of books do you read?
The books that I enjoy the most are historical biographies. And even if you select two different biographies of the same person there is always more to be absorbed.
Which historical figures do you admire?
Well, for one, Alexander Hamilton. If you read his biography you will see what a young man born a bastard of a white and black couple could do with his life. He was born on one of the Caribbean islands, and got a job in a shipping office. By the age of 16 he was running the office and was responsible for the movements of the ships in his control. If he had been born in the United States, he would have been one of our earliest great presidents. He recognized that without a military background he would not be able to achieve any high political office in our government. He became the aide de camp to George Washington and within a year or two of the revolution, asked Washington to relieve him, so he could get out in the battlefield himself.
It’s a fascinating story.
I love to read biographies. There’ve been so many. Jefferson and Adams and Washington himself. They’re all wonderful, really.
How about 20th Century figures?
Roosevelt obviously. Churchill. Ever been up to Hyde Park, to Roosevelt’s home? Churchill came over to the United States to have meetings with Roosevelt. And they were having a dinner meeting at Roosevelt’s house where Churchill was a guest. They discussed the issues and they reached a point when Churchill said: “Good night everybody, I’m going upstairs.” Roosevelt remembered he had something to tell Churchill, and he went to Churchill’s bedroom, knocked on the door, and Churchill said, “Come in.” Churchill had just gotten out of a bath and he was naked. And he said, “You see, Mr. President, we English have nothing to hide!”
Did you lose any of your family in the concentration camps?
No, I don’t think so. We had very distant family, whom we only heard about, but we didn’t know them.
Do you find it fathomable how so much evil could have been inflicted?
It is almost impossible to imagine how the Nazis could have gained so much power and at the same time want to destroy another significant member of the human race – the Jews. It is impossible to believe. Do you know how important Jews were to Germany in their development of science, writing, and music? God almighty for Hitler to have turned his back on that.
What was your favorite time of life?
[Laughs.] I would think the favorite time of life is always, always, the present. There’s no reason to believe that beautiful events that occurred in the past do not continue to occur now and in the future. Bringing up our children was a wonderful part of our life. But it was just as wonderful and maybe more wonderful to see the grandchildren develop, and to see the great-grandchildren develop. So that each time you feel you’re enjoying something there can be something tomorrow and there is usually something tomorrow just as if not more enjoyable.
What are some of the advantages of getting older?
Having a greater choice of plays, lectures, concerts – so many that you have to be selective, because you cannot attend as many as you would like.
Do you have any bitterness at all about the limitations of aging?
Not bitterness. But like everybody else I’m a little bit sad to see some of the enjoyable activities that I’ve mentioned that you cannot handle anymore.
What events in life most surprised you?
I’m not sure it surprised me, but what provided the greatest enjoyment was that Charlotte could go on that trip that I mentioned before, out west, to the national parks, just after she finished with her cancer treatments. And you know what the sad part is? Her surgeon was a beautiful man, a beautiful man. And I don’t mean handsome or anything like that. He was your ideal of what a doctor should be like. He cared for his patients, and when his patients had to go in for X-ray treatments after the surgery, he went there, and he pointed out exactly where he wanted to X-ray to be beamed and he stayed there while this was all going on. And the sad part is that he got cancer of the throat and he died when he was age 50. He was such a man, Dr. Brassfield.
Don’t you think it’s astonishing the role luck plays in life?
You can say that again. I had a cousin, Frances, we all called her Frankie. She was a physician, a GP. Don’t ask me how it happened but one year before Charlotte had her episode with this melanoma, she [Frankie] had the exact same condition. Exact same condition in the exact same part of the leg that required excavation and treatment afterwards. And she found this Dr. Brassfield. And he cured her. She practiced into her 70s. And that’s how we got to him. And both women were there as testimony to the wonderful science of this surgeon, really. It was incredible.
What have you learned about making relationships work? You’ve had a long marriage, business relationships, children, grandchildren…
Close relations can be established with others if you ignore certain aspects of another person and just concentrate on their qualities as a friend. Then it works fairly well.
So you have to turn a blind eye to some aspects of their personality?
Absolutely. Because we all have something that someone doesn’t like. But it doesn’t have to stop a friendship.
Other regrets, aside from not utilizing the GI Bill to go to college?
I wish I had been more aggressive in pursuing opportunities to advance my business career. I feel when I look around and see how other people have developed with the same limitations and hesitations that I had, but pursued them and succeeded, I get a little bit frustrated myself that I did not do more.
But you did succeed though.
We all have different definitions of success, right? And people who manage to succeed on their own…when you’re working for a company, yes, you’re a success for the company, it’s not the same thing as your success. It’s the company’s success. Not the same thing.
Still, to be at one company for 50 years, starting at the bottom…
Yeah [somewhat heatedly], but was it because I was too lazy to take the knowledge that I gathered from that position and shop around with other companies? There were many people who knew what they were doing and could develop their own departments for other companies. I didn’t do it, I was too lazy.
Or maybe you just content with what you had?
I don’t know. But you never know until you try. And I never did try.
Did you like work? Did you like going to work?
I did like the work because in my position I was responsible for very substantial decisions, such as when to try a case, when to settle a case, and to make the best decision under the conditions that prevailed. It was very difficult for me to live with that day after day after day. But I certainly wasn’t bored!
So there was a lot of pressure?
Self-pressure. I had my own standards and I tried to live up to them.
Were you ever tempted to compromise your standards – make it easier on yourself?
No, no. I did not.
Why do you think you were that way?
People in the Depression understood – I think more so than today – the value of a dollar. And it sometimes takes that sort of pressure of leading a frugal life that may prevent you from trying to achieve very high goals. And I find that among my friends too, who are the same age as I am and all went through the same things. We all recognized the value of a dollar. It’s not that way with the present generation coming up. And I don’t blame them! They are so well-educated, so well-trained. They have such great hopes for the future, and they know they’re going to make it, that they have a different perspective than my generation.
You think they’re more willing to take risks?
And your generation – or at any rate you – were more risk-averse.
Very much so. Many of the people of my age, when they got ready to go to work, if they could find a civil service job, that was heaven. And just like myself, they stayed with it the rest of their life. They might have gone out and done better than that. But it’s always very nice to have a civil service job where you’re guaranteed your benefits and salary and retirement and all of that.
Kids today might say they have it a lot worse, because they don’t have those guarantees.
I don’t know.
[At this point we talk about Alan.]
…He exchanges stories with me about certain [sports] games we went to together, and I have absolutely no idea how he recollects certain events and stories. One of the things that comes along with aging is the difficulty remembering dates and names, even among friends I’ve known for many years. That should be the worst of it.
I do remember one story. I used to be a football Giants fan, and I went to the Polo Grounds, that’s where they played their games. And during one game an announcement came over the loudspeaker, saying, “Would Col. Bill Donovan call his office?” That was the end of it, we watched the game. When we came out of the Polo Grounds, there were these tabloids: “Pearl Harbor Bombed!” People looked at each other and said, “Where the hell is Pearl Harbor?”
Raising the kids, were there any special trials and tribulations?
No. Charlotte and I always felt very lucky that our kids never tried drugs. We escaped that. Many parents had that problem and had to deal with it, and that was tough. We had friends here in New Rochelle who as far as I’m concerned were just as caring and loving seeing their children develop and working with them on their homework and everything else – who were just not lucky. Don’t ask me why one family was lucky and another wasn’t. They put in as much effort with their children as we did. One family we knew – to see their kid get involved [with drugs] that way was crushing.
[At this point the tape runs out. But my notes indicate we talked about Monroe’s volunteer work in retirement. He said for a time he helped kids with their homework at the New Rochelle library. He was the first volunteer and when he left there were five. Later the College of New Rochelle took over the program and students did it for college credit. He also joined CASA – Court Appointed Special Advocate – providing assistance to the courts when they took custody of a neglected or abused child, or whose parents were on drugs.]
I just resigned last month. I was the only male advocate out of 75 people. Most of the others were former teachers, social workers and the like. I was the only non-professional involved.
We’d work with the parents, the county, therapists, teachers. Cases would sometimes take as long as four-and-a-half years. There was one boy, when I began with him, he wouldn’t start a conversation. “No.” “Yes.” That was it. When I left he was in the last year of middle school. His personality, his character, his friendliness were marvelous to behold. You couldn’t stop him from talking. His parents were on drugs. We gave them two choices: give up custody or go to trial. They gave up custody. His aunt said she would adopt him. Our goal, when the parents weren’t fit to be with the child, was to find someone capable of adopting. So seeing that gave us a tremendous sense of accomplishment.
Note: Monroe passed away Sept. 13, 2016, at the age of 94, a few days after his 73rd wedding anniversary. He was surrounded by his loving family.