Exit Ramp: Not all heroes wear uniforms
Who is your hero? The star who hit 40 home runs? The firefighter who ran into a burning building to rescue a puppy? The first responders during 9/11 or at Newtown, Conn., who ignored personal danger to save survivors and who consoled agonizing parents? Or is it someone else?
Most likely you’ve never heard about my hero because he was none of the above. He was an ordinary guy whose name rarely appeared in the local newspaper and he never earned a medal. He rarely missed a day of work and he always paid his bills in a timely fashion, although sometimes it was a struggle. He obeyed the law, stood proudly for the national anthem, cried when he heard “God Bless America” because he was proud of his immigrant roots, and served as president of his synagogue. Ben always had a joke to tell, a story to relate, and an “atta boy” when someone else excelled. That’s why he remains as my hero. He was my father.
Ben worked five days a week and supplemented his income as a Sunday school teacher at a local synagogue in Yonkers, N.Y. He relaxed when time permitted by listening to classical music on WQXR. He regularly attended Shabbat services Saturday mornings and then fell asleep in his favorite chair after lunch while listening to the Metropolitan Opera. But as tired as he was, Dad never missed an opportunity to help me, or my best buddy Joe, with our homework assignments when called upon to do so. He bought us our first dictionaries and encouraged us to strive for success. Although we could not afford summer vacations, just listening to his stories about growing up on the Lower East Side and working his way through City College fascinated and inspired us.
When Joe was in elementary school, his father died suddenly. My parents treated him as if he were their second son. Joe joined us for Shabbat dinners and Joe’s widowed mom welcomed me at their table for Christmas, Easter, and other non-Jewish holidays. Occasionally, dad took an afternoon off from his sales job so that he could join us at Yankee Stadium. We didn’t mind sitting in the bleachers under the hot sun as we enjoyed America’s favorite pastime. Until Joe’s death four years ago, we continued to reminisce about those wonderful experiences.
Dad also continued to motivate us to study hard. Joe worked his way through Columbia and medical school and became a successful physician. I worked my way through NYU and became a writer. Another friend, Howie, whom Dad sometimes took under his wing, became an attorney. Dad encouraged us to enjoy books and good music, and to appreciate the meaning of family. He taught us valuable lessons and set wonderful examples.
When dad passed away, the funeral home in Mount Vernon, N.Y., was filled because he unknowingly had touched so many lives. My children eulogized him as a “man who was short in height but tall in stature.” We had gathered to pay respects to a heckuva good guy, a loving husband, father, grandfather, and friend — an extraordinary man who quietly led by example.
Hadassah Associates of Monroe Township, of which I am co-president, will present a program in September on a World War II hero who risked his life to save the lives of 200 Jewish prisoners of war. Rev. Chris Edmonds is a loving son who honors his late father, Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, by devoting time and energy to sharing the Army sergeant’s story. Rev. Edmonds is a Baptist minister from Tennessee whose father’s courage enables him to explain the evils of anti-Semitism. He preaches that even “ordinary men and women” can make a difference.
The late Sgt. Roddie Edmonds and Ben Strumpf had much in common. Neither were rich nor famous and their paths never crossed. Yet, in their own respective ways they benefitted and changed the lives of the people whose lives they touched. They were, and remain in my mind, real heroes.