Syndicated columnist Jamie Stiehm: Members of 'Silent Generation' still have much to say and do
Historian David McCullough has left us at 89, a beloved storyteller of presidents and nation-building feats such as the Brooklyn Bridge. Author Douglas Brinkley likened him to "a silver-haired sea captain" steering to the original promises of this land.
Social Security was signed into law 87 years ago by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
My father's lifelong friend, Leon Rosenberg, once dean of the Yale School of Medicine, died at 89 in July. He was born on 3/3/33 -- "the coolest thing about me." A son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Leon's obituary appeared in The New York Times.
These arcs are from the Depression era to 2022. The generation born in hard times and World War II looked to Roosevelt as a cheery father figure for 12 years. Children were raised to believe government worked for the common man and woman.
They played out on neighborhood streets and came home at dark. Adults watched casually from their screen porches as they played cards on summer evenings. Bashful Mr. Hicks left garden tomatoes by front doors without ringing the bell.
My grandmother, a widowed nurse, gathered the family to hear Roosevelt's radio "Fireside Chats."
Luminaries McCullough, Leon and my father and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi belong to this generation. So did Martin Luther King Jr. So does our greatest bard, Bob Dylan, singer Joan Baez, journalists Marvin Kalb and the late Mark Shields.
Surprise: President Joe Biden, too.
Ironically, they're named the "Silent Generation" since many thought they'd never have a president. (Biden came late in the game.)
Also, it's smaller, with fewer births. It's often overshadowed by the before and after: the so-called "Greatest" and postwar baby boomers.
This generation is brightest by the numbers. America's public schools peaked then, for whites, Blacks and massive waves of immigration.
Let me tell you about two blue-eyed boys from Madison, Wisconsin. At 10, Leon and Richard met at red brick Randall School.
At 12, my father's Capital Times paper route went by the Rosenberg house. On the April day Roosevelt died, Leon's warmhearted mother came outside, crying and speaking in her Yiddish accent. That was an indelible memory.
At West High, they ate lunch every day with six other friends. All sat in the same chairs. One made it to West Point.
Richard became a junior tennis champion, by showing up at the public courts and reading Don Budge on the backhand.
That Leon was going places, my father's mother predicted. Indeed, he was voted valedictorian. (My Dad did better at math.)
Then they were bound for the University of Wisconsin's pre-med program. Rough seas, but their shared fate. My father's late father was a doctor and as a youngster, Leon hoped to heal his mother's injured hand.
In medical school at the UW, Leon and Richard shared a cadaver project up high in the science building, a stone's throw from Lake Mendota. You can't get closer than that.
Training at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital was a final tie in their bond. Leon went first and told his pal it was not to be missed, an institution that lived up to its legend.
Moving to 125th Street, my father became a pediatrics resident. My mother earned a Ph.D. from Columbia -- she was anything but silent.
My father went west to UCLA and Leon chose Yale for rising careers in academic medicine. They stayed in close touch.
Growing up in California, I heard so many stories about Leon. He later became the chief scientific officer at Bristol-Myers Squibb, living more lavishly.
When we met in person, it was like I'd known him all my life. We confided about a mood disorder in common, with my one flight up, his dark fall down. "Bipolar bears," Richard lightly called us.
Leon flew out for my father's surprise 80th birthday party. Their eyes lit up like candles.
We wept when my father told me of his last conversation with dying Leon. He told him how much their friendship meant.
Leon finished a bracing memoir and began a "Committee of Old Friends" before he died. Richard is at work on his memoir at 89, though he just lost his best friend, bright-eyed to the end.
The Silents still speak -- truly they are the best of us.
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