Straddling Worlds

“As he spoke, it was easy to forget that he would soon celebrate his ninety-third birthday. Today, he wanted to discuss his death.”– Prologue

For thirty years after my last class with one of Northwestern University’s most illustrious professors, Richard W. Leopold, I had maintained contact with him, just as hundreds of other students had. Many of those counting him as a central influence from their early years had risen to national prominence: Senator George McGovern, congressmen Richard Gephardt and Jim Kolbe, journalist Georgie Anne Geyer, Assistant Secretary of State Phyllis Elliott Oakley, writer/director/producer Garry Marshall, Crate & Barrel founder Gordon Segal, and General Dynamics Chairman Nicholas Chabraja, among numerous others.

He had never married. By 2004, he was confined to a wheelchair and pesky tremors afflicted both hands. But his mind remained sharp as we talked during one of my monthly visits to his nursing home room. Surprisingly, he ventured for the first time into a deeply personal matter: the approaching end of his days.

“I am concerned,” he said, “that no one knows the essential facts of my life well enough to write an accurate obituary when it is over.”

I accepted his implicit challenge. Over the subsequent two years, we met every Sunday morning, eventually retracing his entire twentieth century journey. Along the way, we added my father-in-law, whose life had paralleled my former professor’s. Born in the same year, 1912, and into Jewish lineages, both men grew up in secular homes. But the absence of any Jewish self-identification did not shield them from childhood anti-Semitism. They overcame discrimination to attend and succeed at Ivy League schools: after Princeton, Leopold received one of Harvard’s first Ph.Ds in American history awarded to a Jew; after Yale, my father-in-law became one of only eight Jews in his medical school class of eighty-three at Western Reserve University. As members of the “Greatest Generation,” they served with distinction as officers during World War II. When it ended, they resumed their climb to the top of their respective professions.

They persevered through a twentieth century Jewish-American experience that they and many others shared, but rarely discussed. As their lives ended, these two men told all of us their stories.

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