Libraries are full of books about rich and famous people who are often held as models for us to emulate. We learn values from Washington, Lincoln and Gandhi. We learn how to be successful from the repulsive (to me) Donald Trump and the admirable Warren Buffett. Yet recently, I was at the memorial service of a Port Jefferson friend, an 86-year-old retired high school guidance counselor, Harry Rosenzweig, who was probably more successful than anyone in the whole biography section. We could all learn from Harry.
Harry was not physically imposing. He was about 5’ 6,” somewhat chubby, with a round, smiling face under a mainly bald head. Until his knee wore out four years ago, he played tennis and golf decently. He didn’t think tennis was fun unless his opponent could return the ball, so he refused to hit winners. I loved playing golf with him. He had absolutely no interest in his score and would walk up to the ball and, without fanfare, hit it short and straight. Yet, walking with him meant enjoyable discussions of Mozart, Mahler, medical reform, foreign policy and his outrage about how King Leopold owned the Belgium Congo and how he treated the Congolese. Harry was an active listener and was more interested in what others said than his own opinion. And he was flexible enough to change his mind.
Harry’s father died when he was four and his mother, being very poor, had to place Harry and his older brother in a Jewish orphanage. Harry surprised me when he said he loved the orphanage—so many friends, sports and plenty of activities. He even wrote an essay about having a hundred brothers.
The memorial service in Westchester Country Club, near Harry’s son and daughter, brought together about 200 people, mainly from NYC, Port Jefferson and Florida, where Harry wintered. About 20 people spoke and all, from his children and grandchildren to old friends from the Lower East Side, had the same theme—Harry’s warmth and positive attitude. He enjoyed opera, reading, sports and, above all, being with people. When I bumped into Harry in Port Jefferson, I would be greeted like a long-lost son. This memorial service was different from many I attended—everything everyone said was true!
After his beloved wife of 50-some years died, Harry went out with women. They were crazy about him. Some showered him with gifts and all thoroughly enjoyed his company. I teased him that I could get rich selling tickets to him and that I had to keep my wife Marilyn away from him or my marriage would be over. Characteristically, Harry lowered his head and laughed. He had that valuable gift of making people feel important.
There is a lesson to be learned from Harry. A lesson perhaps more important than from Lincoln or Trump. Harry’s enormous success was enjoying life and people. Although Harry was an unreconstructed Socialist, one of the speakers told of the frequent debates Harry had with a friend who was “Right of Attila the Hun.” They had a drink, locked horns politically, laughed, and left each battle with an appointment to continue, convinced neither would change.
When I examine the quality of Harry’s life, it is clear how rich he was. Certainly not rich in money, power or prestige, but rich in a more important way—rich in fundamentally wonderful experiences. Because he was so warm, accepting and curious, he brought out the best in everyone around him. Everyone was glad to see him and enjoyed talking to him. He created, as we all do, much of his personal universe. His universe was one that reflected him. No one could be hostile when talking to Harry. His family adored him, people smiled when they were with him and because of his intense intellectual curiosity, by reading and by discussions, he was constantly stimulated. Harry’s life was a lesson on a good life. As one speaker at Harry’s service quipped, “Harry’s glass wasn’t half empty or half full—it overflowed!”