Our society worships youth. We would be better served to shift our focus and listen to our elders. I never thought I'd say this, since I grew up in a generation that followed the credo "don't trust anyone over 30." Well, I've been over 30 almost as long as I was under it, so naturally I've changed my tune.
With that in mind, I'd like to salute an exemplary member of the elder class, Bernard "B" Rapoport. I first encountered B when I read Bushwhacked by Molly Ivins. I was so impressed, I immediately dashed off a letter. Thus began a sporadic but delightful correspondence. I got to meet B in person when he was honored by Campaign for America's Future at its annual convention a few years ago. I regularly send him my articles, he responds with an occasional, encouraging word.
I asked B if he'd be interested in a little one-on-one story-telling. He's lived a long, vibrant life and I wanted in. We finally got started a few weeks ago. With two sessions under our belts, I'm already enjoying myself immensely.
Certain themes are constants in B's life: progressive values, giving back, love of books and music, the State of Israel, and first and foremost, love of his wife and family. Money is definitely important, he says, but it's not the most important thing in life: love is.
I asked him yesterday about the secret to sustaining a relationship. He's been married more than 65 years, so he's obviously doing something right. He mentioned "honest concern" and said this applies to all relationships. He met his future wife, Audre, through what he calls serendipity. He was 24, and working at a jewelry store in Wichita Falls. He planned to visit his mother in San Antonio. A friend suggested he stop in Waco and meet a girl. He almost didn't. After a very short courtship, they got married. I asked how he knew it would work, since they hardly knew one another. "I didn't." I asked if he was scared to decide so quickly. "Not at the time." Looking back, he admits it was a bit impulsive.
B worries about what's been happening to the "good society" of late. We no longer know our neighbors. And we live transient lives, separated from one another. He contrasts this with his own upbringing. He's 92 now, and grew up in a different era, in a cooperative, immigrant community. "There was a sense of camaraderie. We've lost that sense today. People are more committed to things than to people." Neighbors and friends dropping by were greeted warmly. Every week, a group of fellow radicals would appear to discuss politics with his folks over tea, rye bread and butter.
B learned so much from his parents. They came over from Russia in their twenties and ended up in the Mexican section of San Antonio. B's father David learned Spanish so he could help his neighbors. He was scorned by polite society for his Marxist ideas but he really didn't care.
The family always had a roof over their heads and enough to eat. They didn't have money for clothes but, somehow, there were always plenty of books and lots of music, including opera. "As poor as we were, we had a great childhood, we really did, a very rich life."
His father had little patience for those who didn't read. To him, the world was divided into two categories - you were either intelligent or an idiot. This was measured by how much you read, and if you cared about getting an education. B had to get up at 5:30 every morning to read Russian classics. B's kept the reading habit going all these years. He jokes that his father would come back from the grave and scold him if he didn't.
So, education was highly regarded by the Rapoports. Despite their poverty, it was always assumed that B would go to college. He ended up at the University of Texas, working sixty hours a week to pay for it. He'd attend classes every day from 8-11, go home, pop a grilled cheese in the toaster, and eat it on the way to the jewelry store where he worked until 6:30. Every Saturday, he worked from eight in the morning until ten at night. He had no social life. He didn't go to any dances or attend a single football game. He wishes that college were more affordable these days. He'd like kids "to have life experience at college" and not have to work their way through school like he did.
While B never did much socializing at college, he managed to get a fine education. At one time, he considered becoming a professor, which would have gladdened his father's heart. This dream was fulfilled when B's son Ronald, David's grandson, became a professor of government at the College of William and Mary.
B's father used every opportunity to teach his son about fairness, compassion, and generosity. B recalls having a nickel and wanting to buy a Milky Way. His father urged him to put it in the pushke (charity box) instead. There was always someone out there who needed that nickel more than he needed that candy bar. This principle has guided B's adult life.
Instead of becoming a professor, B became a businessman with a conscience. His success was built on a simple but revolutionary idea. While many people were afraid of unions, B wasn't. He'd been steeped in his father's pro-union sensibilities. He proposed that "everyone from me on down" join the union, turning his small insurance company into a union shop. Then, he successfully solicited business from the unions, who recognized him as one of their own. Over the years, he built an insurance empire. B is well aware that he has lived the American Dream. He's grateful, and has spent a good portion of his adult life paying back. B's been a mainstay of progressive causes and political candidates. The University of Texas, as well as the town of Waco, have benefited tremendously from his generosity.
I mentioned yesterday that I was listening to Voices of our Time, a collection of Studs Terkel's WFMT interviews. B interrupted to tell me this story. Terkel was in one of Chicago's poorer neighborhoods and saw a young girl sitting on a stoop. He asked her what she was looking for in life. "I wish some of it would come my way," she said.
That vignette nestled intact, all these years, in B's memory. It was partly because Studs was such a masterful storyteller, but also because this story struck a nerve. B wholeheartedly wants everyone to have a chance. He bemoans the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots. He's kept coming back to the unsustainability and basic unfairness of a system in which the top 1% has more than the bottom 100 million. In his own way, he has done his best to address that problem. As I said, we could all learn a lot from this caring and principled elder.
Be well, and happy birthday, B. I look forward to many more opportunities to hear your stories!