PROUD BROOKLINE WWII VETERAN JOSEPH SHWARTZ
LOOKS BACK ON 90 YEARS
By Susie Davidson
Longtime Brookline resident Joseph Shwartz has celebrated many an occasion, but this September 15 will mark a special one indeed. "91," he beams. "Can you believe, I'll be 91 years old!"
Blessed with good health, a comfortable life and a sunny disposition, Joe is a picture of graciousness that is at once sincere, unassuming and (despite his 6'2" frame), gently and thoroughly humble. He likes nothing more than a good meal, a visit from his sons, their wives and his two grandchildren, and the opportunity to bend an ear at any time with any apt and able conversationalist.
Always expressing his thanks to the Almighty (Joe was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household and has remained observant all his years), he delights in recounting the tales of his lengthy lifespan. From anecdotes of life in long-ago Boston to recent episodes on the streets of Brookline, an interlude with Joe will yield a vibrant tapestry of the heartfelt, deeply human experience of one of Brookline's eldest citizens.
From within this repertoire, several incidents clearly stand out in Joe's expansive memory. Despite a 30 year career as Chief Inspector at the Securities and Exchange Commission in Boston, it is Joe's WWII naval stretch that fills him with pride. "When I enlisted," he relates, "the war had just begun. I told my mother of my decision. Now, any other mother would have fallen down crying, but not my mother! 'My son,' she responded, 'there's a war going on. Now who's going to fight this war, the women and children? The men have to go!' It was these words that took me through the hard times - whenever I got scared, I would remember them."
Stationed in the Philippines, Joe never forgot the day a passing sailor called to him: "hey, say hello to your brother Mickey for me!" Neither he nor his brother ever found out who this far-off acquaintance was.
Mickey (currently a resident at the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Roslindale) figures prominently in another of Joe's favorite stories. "My brother Mickey - his name is really Ralph - owned a haberdasherie - a men's clothing store - on Tremont St. (Stuart Ltd.), and he knew a world of people. One day, some Irish politicians brought in a kid who was considering a run for Congress. 'Mickey', they said, 'how about showing this kid around, since you know so many people?' Mickey closed the store and did so. Do you know what? That kid went on to become the President of the United States! His name was John F. Kennedy! A Jew helped to start him off. Very few people know that!"
More recently, an encounter at this past April's Marathon has etched an indelible impression on Joe. "There was a parade of some sort, and a sergeant of the Brookline Police Department was standing there. I saw his stripes, and asked him if he was in the war. Turns out he was in the Army, and I was in the Navy. Do you know what he did? He shook hands with me in the middle of the parade. Everyone standing around thought I was getting arrested, but he stopped his duties to shake my hand!"
Like many American Jews, Joe's roots are in Russia (Ukraine). His grandparents came over in 1905. Both his grandfather and father were carpenters, and his father was known as an eloquent cantor (synagogue singer). "Why couldn't any of us sing like my father?" Joe often laments. "When he sang, the walls would shake!"
Joe's grandfather was also active in synagogue. "He was 6'4", 250 pounds," Joe often says. "My grandmother was half his size, and I think he was scared of her!"
"He was the most gentle man you could imagine," Joe continues. "One day, a man spit in the shul's aisle. 'Hey, mister, what are you doing?' my grandfather said. Well, the man got up like he wanted to fight, and when he took one look at the size of my grandfather, he sat right down!"
Raised in the working class neighborhoods of East Boston and Chelsea, Joe worked at a local brokerage firm after his Navy term, and, while at the Securities and Exchange Commission, put himself through Boston University. "I went 3 nights a week, for 6 years!" he recalls. "It was a tremendous amount of work. My mother, who never learned English, didn't know what it was all about, and my father didn't know much more. But I received a Bachelor of Business Administration degree, and that was worth it for me!"
Joe's pleasant demeanor belies some personal tragedy. He married late for his era, at 45, and his beloved wife Phyllis succumbed to cancer at 59. "I never was interested in dating after that," he says, sadly. "I had the best, and that was it for me." Joe and Phyllis had two sons: Robert, who lives in Hudson with his wife Linda, daughter Rachel and son Steven, and Sherman, who lives with his new bride Risa in Somerset, New Jersey. Longevity clearly runs in his family, as in addition to Mickey, 86, his sisters Edythe and Bella, 81 and 85 respectively, reside in Florida.
On September 15, Joe's family will themselves thank the Almighty for the blessing of his years. The people in his anecdotes, who have played such a large role in his life, can also be praised for their contributions, and well remind us of the importance of taking the time to acknowledge and interact with each person who crosses our paths. And if the Brookline sergeant is reading this, know that your handshake was pretty memorable for one equally memorable Brookline inhabitant.