Approaching his 100th birthday, Jerome Rose sat back in an armchair in his Maplewood retirement home, smiled, and reflected on his longevity.
“I owe it all to being just lucky. I never smoked and I don’t drink. My sister, who is a year and a half younger than I am, is still alive. My older sister died in her 90s. My mother died when she was in her 80s,” he told a visitor.
But genetics and clean living tell only part of his story. Rose’s life is full of pride for his civic contributions, especially to his beloved hometown of Bayonne and its Jewish community.
His involvement dates back to before his bar mitzva in 1926 at Temple Emanu-El, where he is now an honorary trustee. As a young adult he was a founder of the city’s Jewish Community Center.
“I negotiated the purchase of a vacant property owned by the city of Bayonne where they built the community center. I had parlor meetings in my home where lawyers and real estate men participated in its fund-raising,” he recalled.
But when it was half built the group ran out of money and the contractor threatened to walk off the job.
“So we devised a plan for people who didn’t have enough money to help us finish the job. They would sign a promissory note, bring it to the bank, and the bank lent the community center the money, charging a very low rate of interest,” he said.
He put his fund-raising talents to use as chair of the town’s United Jewish Appeal.
As president of Bayonne’s Jewish Community Council he welcomed former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to town for an Israel Bonds fund drive.
“I had the honor of introducing her at a dinner,” he said. His memory of their conversation is lost, “but I do remember she had a second helping of the stuffed derma, and she ate the skin. It was a big thrill for me.”
In addition he served as vice president of the Bayonne Hospital Foundation and the Jewish Old-Age Home, chairman of the Bayonne Industrial Commission, vice chairman of the Bayonne Housing and Rehabilitation Authority, and counsel to the Bayonne Planning Board.
One of his main hobbies is writing.
“When I went to Hebrew school I typed on my typewriter what I called the Hebrew School News, and I even tried to sell it.”
In high school, Rose worked as a stringer for the Bayonne Times.
He went on to Rutgers University, and then Mercer Beasley School of Law, which later became Rutgers Law School. He is the oldest living alumnus of the state university.
“I passed the bar in 1936. There was no work for young lawyers, and even older lawyers had a problem making ends meet, but I was very fortunate. I worked with my father, who was in the real estate, insurance, and mortgage business,” he said.
He and his brother took over the family business after his father’s death in 1945. In turn, Rose’s son, Stephen, joined the firm and helped build what is now called Rose and Zucker, with its office in Bayonne.
Some 25 years ago Rose moved to Verona, then to Winchester Gardens in Maplewood.
He and his late wife, Pauline, had three children. He now has seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
In 1995, his son Robert, a rare coin dealer, was murdered during the course of a robbery at the age of 52.
“The loss of Bobby is the only blur on my life. It had a profound effect on my wife and me that we never got over,” he said wistfully.
After Pauline’s death in 2002, he rekindled a relationship with Mae Levy, a woman he first met in college.
“I like living with him very much,” she said. “He has been very gentle, thoughtful, and kind. He is a wonderful person, very responsive, and active in many things. He is lots of fun to be with.”
Rose has slowed down physically over the past few years. He gets around by using a walker, and age has kept him from playing golf.
But he still visits the Maplewood Country Club for dinner a few times each month. He joined 30 years ago “after it began allowing Jewish members. Prior to that, if you were Jewish you couldn’t put your foot in the door. But I had no problem.”
He sees the world of 2013 filled with many problems, and as an ardent Democrat, he is sure of who is to blame.
“It is all because Congress is dysfunctional,” he said.
On Aug. 24, the club hosted Rose and his extended family for his 100th birthday party, and three days beforehand, he told NJ Jewish News, “I am flattered. Nieces and nephews will be coming to the country club from places as far away as New Hampshire, Texas, and West Virginia.”
“One thing I preach to my children and grandchildren over and over is family values,” he said. “Families must stick together. Friends are transient but families are always.”
But, Rose added, “I have no message for younger people. I don’t want to sermonize.”