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 Washington Notebook

November 24, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 42

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent

Washington 
Correspondent
jfeuerherd@natcath.org
 

 

In Thanksgiving

By Joe Feuerherd

Vic Feuerherd grew up in Depression-era Westbury, which was then a rural Long Island village (population 3,000) and not the New York City suburb it is today. Vic knew, as people in small towns do, everyone else's business. Such as which kids had enough to eat - and those who wandered from the baseball field to his house at lunchtime for a glass of milk and a pbj.

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The bespectacled boy devoured books at the children's library. Studious Vic read The New York Times (war was coming), collected stamps, and was near the top of his class at St. Bridget's and Westbury High. When school was out, he went to Boy Scout camp -- seven weeks each summer from the time he was eight-years-old until his late teens. His father was an accountant, while his mother tended to her husband, Vic, and his four sisters.

Down the road some 30 miles, same timeframe, different locale: Brooklyn. Lillian Dolan grew up there in what is now fashionable Gowanis close enough to St. Agnes Church so that when an altar boy didn't appear for Mass one of her three brothers could be enlisted to serve. Her father, whom she adored, was a journalist (The New York Sun - "It Shines for All"), her mother mistress to a house of six children. Lillian was bright (it was a family where reading was valued and discussion flowed freely at the dinner table), attractive, and witty. She loved a good joke.

It was a bustling borough, but also a small town of sorts. Fifty years later, on the occasion of the golden jubilee of Sister of St. Joseph Grace Dolan (a.k.a. "Shirley" or "Aunt Mack"), the youngest sibling, Paul Dolan, recalled the scene.

"We had the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Brooklyn Eagle and above all The New York Sun," he said. "We went to Arnold's for meat and Roulston's for groceries and Hansen's was the drugstore. Ralph was the barber and Verducci the tailor and John Flood the undertaker and Muller's the bakery."

Post-World-War-II-Vic crossed Lil's path for the first time in the student lounge of Fordham University's Lincoln Center campus. He, courtesy of the G.I. Bill, studying accounting; she, education, though it was later joked that she was really going for her MRS.

Which, in June 1950, is what happened. Lil was 20, Vic 25.

The babies came and they left the city, settling, eventually, in Stewart Manor, a Long Island enclave with convenient access to the rail road. Vic was comptroller of the Research Institute of America, a publishing company where people like Walter Lord (A Night to Remember) toiled to support their book-writing habits. Leo Cherne, cold-war Democrat, was a partner. At a 1960 staff luncheon, Cherne made the case for John Kennedy, while Vic (who had voted for Truman and Stevenson but had no love for Joe Kennedy's son) argued for Nixon. Cherne, Vic later reported, trounced him.

In July 1960, Vic became the first Feuerherd to be published in the Catholic press, warning that the business community could not be serious about political engagement unless it dealt with civil rights.

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"These are intensely emotional and personal issues, not usually identified with a corporation's interests," he wrote in America. "The top management of most national companies may well be split down the middle along sectional lines, with the result that the issue will be passed over in favor of forthright statements on relatively innocuous issues, such as the tariff or taxes, which may affect the company's immediate welfare. But if top corporate managements are sincere about expressing a corporate viewpoint on crucial issues affecting their business, a strong case can be made that the civil rights issues affecting individuals involve the same basic freedoms needed by the corporation to carry out its own mission effectively."

Meanwhile, back in Stewart Manor, Lil was loving life. In 1960, she was 30-year-old mother of four, content in a neighborhood of like-minded families, where kids ran in and out of each other's houses as if they were an extension of their own, where the adults would share a Manhattan or gin gimlet as they discussed whatever it is that adults discuss, and where ordering-in veal parmesan and spaghetti once the children were off to bed was considered a fine evening. She would have been happy to stay there forever.

But it wasn't to be. In 1961, the young couple and their four children -- Rick, Beth, Pete and Dave (Lil was carrying the fifth) -- set off on their great adventure. Vic had landed a job as general manager and vice president of a recently-formed insurance, banking and real estate company in Sioux Falls, S.D. Lil was less than enthusiastic about the move, but resigned to the notion that the $22,000 salary ($7,000 more than Vic was earning in high-priced New York) and the professional opportunity presented by running a diversified company was too much to pass up.

There was, of course, a party to commemorate their departure. They were presented with a painting where Vic is caricatured falling off to sleep in his rocking chair outside the family teepee, while Lil and the five children are hanging laundry. "Lil!" yells Vic, "Horace knew what he was talking about. Stewart Manor was never like this ."

The friends wrote some verses, such as:

Vic and Wife are Leaving Town
For Prairies Wide and Hills Renown.
Grass He'll Never Have to Cut
Just Live in Teepee, Big Indian Hut.
We'll Miss Them all and Wish Them Well,
Ten More Indians, Who Can Tell.
There's Just One Question When They are Gone,
Will Sioux Falls Have Veal Parmesan?

Vic was to be the big New York fish in the small Sioux Falls pond. But he soon discovered that the owners of the company had few qualms about playing fast-and-loose with the securities and banking laws. So, in less than a year, he and Lil loaded up the five kids (she then pregnant with the sixth) and headed back East. Where, in the summer of 1963, the jobless breadwinner, his pregnant wife, and five children under the age of 11 moved in with Lil's mother in the Brooklyn brownstone.

Soon enough, Vic was back on a payroll. With a 4 percent VA mortgage and assistance from Lil's mother, they bought a big home in Garden City, the Long Island village adjacent to Stewart Manor. Not fancy, but large enough to shelter the growing brood.

In the summer of 1964, their fifth child, Stephen, began behaving listlessly. Leukemia, said the doctors. There was little that could be done. Three-year-old Stephen died, as Lil thought he might, on Dec. 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

In 1966 another child, Mary, would die soon after birth.

Life continued despite the sorrows.

Vic rose through the ranks of SCM Corporation, the multinational conglomerate which produced Smith Corona typewriters, Proctor Silex Toaster Ovens, Durkee Foods and Glidden Paint. He was a busy man with an impressive title (vice president planning, mergers and acquisitions) who did interesting work -- buying and selling companies in an era that knew nothing of junk bonds or greenmail. Trips to Singapore, London, Brazil, Paris, Argentina. Big office on Park Avenue.

He liked being successful, not primarily because of the money it brought in (which by the time you educate, clothe, house and feed six kids -- another son was born in 1967 -- gets spent pretty quickly) but because he thought his talents were being put to good use.

Their youngest child, Matthew, was born deaf, so Vic and Lil became active in the local League for the Handicapped. Vic made a project of understanding the education of the deaf. He read the literature and family vacations were interrupted by visits to local schools for the deaf, where the administrators were happy to provide a tour. Lil took the classes and learned sign language, a skill Vic tried to master, with little success, in retirement.

In the late 1970s, the League for the Handicapped proposed that the old parish convent be converted to a group home. Vic, as treasurer, spelled-out how the financing would work. The proposal was shot-down by the pastor.

Twenty-two Thanksgivings ago, their 19-year-old son, a marginally-performing college sophomore with few visible prospects, informed Vic and Lil that he planned to marry the young lady with whom he was in love. Their response, amazingly in retrospect, was unconditional support (a reaction the now 41-year-old father of three teenagers and his wife of 21 years wonder if they could replicate). They understood the desire to build a life together.

His SCM days behind him, Vic cherished his seat on the Garden City Public Library Board. He read books, watched C-Span, the news, and the political talk shows. And then read more books. He liberally dispensed advice to his children and grandchildren, both solicited and unsolicited, with no expectation that it be followed, nor any resentment when it wasn't. Over the last couple of years he wasn't sharp enough, and was overwhelmed by both Lil's illness and his own, to carry out that role, which left a real void.

Lil was a parish leader in the RCIA, a Eucharistic minister, a grandmother who would spoil her grandchildren, and a dear friend to many who remember her fondly. Of her many talents, not least was the gift of friendship.

They were similar in some ways. Both were strong-willed. And, ultimately, they wanted the same thing -- to create something larger then themselves, to enjoy some modest pleasures, to share in their families' joys and heartbreaks. But they were also very different people.

She, gregarious and fun-loving, the life of many a party, a kind-hearted counselor to those with troubles. "Did you hear the one about "

He, most content at home, book in hand, listening to his wife play religious songs or show tunes on the piano.

Foremost, however, they were a team, two people who loved each other and the hectic and unpredictable life they created.

Lil died Dec. 5, 2003, Vic earlier this month.

So, this Thanksgiving, I'm grateful for the life they gave me and the lessons they taught.

Thanks, mom and dad.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

 
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