Below is one of my favorite pictures of my Dad and I. It was taken in 1964 as I just graduated high school and was working at my father's chair factory before I left for college. This was taken outside of the factory- My Dad was proud of me and I was proud of him
As I look around now and examine my own life and that of my friends and contemporaries, it is interesting to see the inheritance left to various people and how that inheritance is used. Don’t we all point a finger at someone and say?” It isn’t fair- he never made any of that money- He got it from his parents. Sometimes it doesn’t seem fair, but in reality it always is.
By some accounts and measuring sticks, my father was a failure but he was the best damn Dad I ever had, maybe even the best damn Dad anybody ever had. Despite my father’s early death at age 64, he died penniless and the words above were sadly true, but in that truth is an extraordinary story about a man who lived unequivocally in greatness..... as a son, a student , a patriot, a husband, a father, a community leader, a business leader, and even an international leader. Within his life’s work he blatantly and consistently interlaced the words “I am a Jew”- you will see this exhortation, time and time again in many forms as his tale unfolds. Within this story is my inheritance - how it is measured is for you, the reader, to decipher.
One of the first gifts my father gave me and I have read many times is below
My father was born Norman (N.M.I.) Spetner- his missing middle name or “No Middle Initial” caused him much bureaucratic grief over the next 50 years. He was born the middle son to Abraham Spetner and Rose Raskas Spetner. Sometime between the time Norman Spetner was born and he had his Bar Mitzvah, he dropped the name
Norman in favor of the nickname Buddy. His older brother Kenneth gave him the name “buddy” because as he shlepped him around the old neighborhood, residents, friends, and relatives would ask Kenny who he had with him and Kenny told them proudly that Norman was his little buddy- the name stuck and over the next 6 decades it was easy for family members to tell who really was a friend of the family- If they knew Buddy Spetner, they were friends. If they asked for Norman Spetner we all knew it was a serious matter or a stranger inquiring.
The picture below is one of the few I had of my grandfather whom I never met
Both of Buddy’s parents were already 2nd generation Americans and had established an insurance business. Buddy Spetner’s father Abraham Spetner passed away before his 49th birthday, within 6 months after Buddy’s Bar Mitzvah-Upon Abraham Spetner’s death, Rose Raskas Spetnertook over the insurance agency as well as kept up with her mothering duties to her three boys, Kenneth, Buddy, and Label. Prior to their father Abraham’s death, the Spetner boys were just like any family.
The early death of my father’s father had to have had a shocking effect on the family- I always sensed my Dad was hesitant to talk about his father until I found out abouta purported curse which had been cast on Abraham Spetner by one of the sister in laws of Rose Raskas Spetner, over some issues of Koved (honor) and protocol at young Norman’s Bar Mitzvah - So at 13 years old, the day before his Bar Mitzvah, a family argument turned into a Judaic Kabbalistic curse on Abraham Spetner that purportedly was to last for the next 7 generations.It worked for at least 6 months, for within 6 months of the curse, young Buddy Spetner laid his father to rest.
My Dad was a man of little fear, but this event had shaken him and in truth has possibly surfaced in 3 generations since- Maybe just that’s how it is in families, bad things do happen to good people, or maybe witches and warlocks do exist and they can cast spells. Who knows? I offer this little tidbit of information as not only one of interest, but also to show that Norman “Buddy” Spetner had his own psychological ghosts and tormentors like the rest of us.
Buddy was forced to instantly “grow up” and came out of adolescence as a man with a purpose. With high school diploma in hand he left for
Indiana to live with his Aunt Lottie and Uncle Joe Raskas and attend
EvansvilleCollege. He did this to establish residency in the State of
Indiana and then entered
PurdueUniversity at age 17 to pursue a degree in Mechanical Engineering. His thirst to finish pushed him though school because in 1938, the threat of a World War loomed on the horizon. While at Purdue he was president of his Jewish fraternity and he graduated near the top of his class in 1942. Already, he began a pattern of leadership and the gathering of lifelong friends.It was a complete education and his formal engineering training would be useful for the rest of his life.
Buddy’s time at college was blessed already with his B’shert (a Yiddish word for “meant to be”), Lillian Katz. Though she remained in
St. Louis to finish high school, the two of them were already in love. His letters from school to Lil were already spiced and seasoned with a romance that would last Buddy’s lifetime. My mother Lil was cute, vivacious and skillful in coping with people and life. She was a perfect match and balance for my father’s work ethic and his constant pursuit of “something better” for his own family.
Here is a picture of my Mom in 1946 right after she married Dad
Immediately after college, Buddy Spetner enlisted in the Army Air Corps and before he went off to fly, he and Lil took their marriage vows and said the Sheva Brachas ( the traditional seven blessings at a Jewish marriage) at Shaare Zedek Synagogue. Rabbi Ephraim Epstein officiated at the old Shaare Zedek and it was his first wedding as a young Rabbi - No one back then could have known that Rabbi Epstein would also marry me, and I became the first son that Rabbi Epstein married, where he had married the parents also. For a full generation the Spetner family was guided spiritually by Rabbi Epstein and my father, Buddy was a lifelong friend and confidant of this Shaare Zedek rabbi.
Below is a picture of my Dad while training to be a pilot at a little base in Marfa, Texas
Like most of his (“the greatest”) generation, the Second World War was the dominant influence in my Dad’s life. He came back with literally hundreds of stories. His special insight into his fellow officers and men he commanded were never sanitized, but held forth with real emotions and real situations. The stories themselves could make an entire book and fortunately, these stories are still passed down in the family. Buddy spent most of his Army/Air Force career as a Captain and a pilot. He was stationed in Burma and was one of those men who 6 times weekly “Flew the Hump” over the tops of the Himalayas and into China to continually re supply the Chinese troops and American advisors. This amazing airlift was necessary because Japan controlled the seas in the Orient
Buddy became entranced by China- On his weekly missions there, he began to spend time amongst the people in their villages. Mainland China in the ‘40’s was still an agrarian society and Buddy was so taken by this land that he often spoke of how he tried to get Mom to move to China after the war- They would raise a family there, Buddy would work as an engineer building dams and modernizing the countryside...
This is Dad in the open cockpit of one of the planes he flew
His stories very much reminded me of my own fantasies when I myself was young and my wife Helene and I would return from a trip to Mexico or Jamaica and I would fantasize about moving there- living an alternative life style- imagining myself in another society, where all my societal, familial expectations were cast aside- Now that I’m over 64, I can see this is something I inherited from my Dad. Buddy taught me how to fantasize, and how it was Okay to think different things. Dreaming out loud was not only fun, it was a necessary outlet for the pressures of life.
After the war Buddy came home to his wife in
St. Louis. The life in China was now forgotten and the victorious world of post war America awaited men like Buddy. He and Lil had already married in 1942 though they were separated like most of their contemporaries by Buddy’s duties overseas. Upon his return, Buddy applied and was awarded a job with Union Electric as a project engineer for one of their power plants here in St. Louis. He began his “baby boomer” family immediately and I was born in 1947 followed two years later by my sister Carol.
As a small child I always remember that our house seemed to be the gathering point for both sides of the family. My older cousins seemed to adore both Buddy and Lil. There grew to be a mutual respect amongst all of these family members that lasted a lifetime. My early childhood in
St. Louis included weekly rounds on Sundays with my Dad to all of the cousin’s, aunt’s and uncle’s houses to do “home repair” work. As Buddy was the engineer in the family, it apparently fell upon him to also be the electrician, the plumber, the heating, and the general repair man. No job seemed to be too big or small and I spent many a Sunday passing my Dad a screwdriver, brace and bit, or a saw. It seemed also that Buddy did more than fix things and I can still recall how people would ask for his advice, or maybe a small loan, or maybe a chair for their den. I was amazed at his kindness and big heart. I watched him be a buddy to a lot of family members. All my childhood I watched him give. It made him feel good and it made me feel even better. My Dad taught me how to give and it has become an integral part of my entire adult life.
Buddy and Lil also had incredibly strong bonds of friendship with their peers. I believe this stemmed from childhood and lasted throughout their lives. Therefore, my childhood was also interspersed with lots of contemporary “baby boomers” and it seems all the ladies were pregnant my entire first 15 years of my life. Days and summer evenings were filled with picnics, bar b ques, and card parties. Again, some of my earliest memories were attending organizational meetings with my Dad and with all his friends. This was the beginning of my father’s lifelong involvement in fraternal, religious, political, and humanitarian groups. The first I can remember is the Jewish War Veterans of St. Louis and Post 644.
Within that JWV post were Buddy and Lil’s best friends. They had all shared the common experience of wartime.Our life was filled with doing good things through Jewish War Veterans. My father explained to me about widows and children who had lost their fathers in the war. He continuously lectured about German concentration camps and the Jews who survived and needed our help. He talked about the rebuilding of
Palestine into the State of Israel and the War for
Independence that was going on at my birth. He also spoke constantly about doing your duty for your country and the wonderful gift that we had been given personally by being born Jews in
My life was inundated with those scenarios and as a child my favorite thing was to dress up in my Dad’s Air Force helmet and flight jacket and pretend to bomb Nazis and Japs. I was a Yankee Doodle Dandy and never gave any of it a thought until my adolescence. I was taught that the cost of freedom was high, but worth every life and cent. Winning the war was tantamount to living the good life- One followed the other in a natural course. Those experiences and reference points for how to live a good life were the foundation for an idyllic and carefree childhood for me. Despite the fact that new children kept arriving on the Spetner scene, my position as the oldest gave me special privileges and respect that made my life fun.
My father was probably just as patriotic as any other person who had come through World War 2 and survived, but he stayed in the Army/Air Corps reserves after his tour of duty. Sometimes, I think he just stayed in because it allowed him to fly an airplane every month. What fun we had when my Dad would go commandeer an airplane at the National Guard airport and then at 4:00 AM he would load all of his little nieces, nephews and friends’ kids into the airplane and take off when it was dark. It was very loud and we would all scream as we guessed where we were going.He would turn the plane so we could see the sun rise in the East - I think I was too little to understand what he was trying to show us, but as I grew older, at a very early age my Dad was able to show us kids the magnitude of God’s creation and how the darkness would always change into light.
These plane rides, however, did have a cost. Namely, in 1951 Buddy was recalled into the Army Air Corps as the U S Military had just formed the United States Air Force’s Strategic Air Command or SAC. Seems the
US wanted its best pilots and engineers with experience to fly the new breed of airplanes that had been developed...the B-47 long range jet bomber. Despite having two children and a good job and lots of friends, we threw all of our possessions into a 1950 Mercury and headed out Route 66 to March Air Force base in Riverside , California.
I remember that trip as though it happened yesterday rather than over 60 years ago. I stood up on the front seat next to my Dad for the entire 1800 mile trip along the 2 lane highway.My Mom sat in back with my baby sister Carol and for hours on end Buddy taught me every song he ever knew. From war songs like “Off we go into the Wild Blue Yonder” to college songs like “Show me the Way to go Home” I soaked up every word. These songs would serve as everlasting entertainment for our family for years to come. Both my Mom and Dad loved to sing and to this day, I probably know the words to 1000 songs.
While in the Strategic Air Command, my Dad would fly the so called “Fail Safe” line from California up the coast to Alaska then over the Bering Sea to the Russian coastline and then along the enemy coastline for 2 or 3 days while being re fueled in mid air. This entire time he was in charge of the 4 Nuclear Bombs which each B-47 held. This was monotonous and scary work, but my Dad always took it seriously. The best thing as far as I was concerned which came from our two years of active duty during the Korean Conflict was the birth of my second sister Elly. She was born at the Air Force hospital which was more like an old barracks and my Dad took my sister Carol and I to the hospital and let us stand on his shoulders outside the window to see our new little sister.
Finally, it was time to return home to
St. Louis. The Korean War ended and the Cold War began. Buddy and Lil and their three children returned home to a bustling
U.S. economy and as Tom Brokaw described in his book “the Greatest Generation” they took their place in line with fellow Americans who felt that nothing was impossible. Hard work coupled with strong moral and religious convictions would insure a fulfilling and prosperous life. The family bought their first home in
University CityMO and moved into the lucky number 777 Yale ave.
Buddy went to work for his brother-in-law Charles Bianco who after the war had built a growing business making restaurant seating . Utilizing Charlie’s abilities for deal making and Buddy’s talents as an engineer they soon bought a struggling chair factory in downtown St. Louis, and by 1960 had built a factory which employed over 300 people and produced bentwood seating for a nationwide market. Lil stayed busy by having four more boys over a five year period ending in 1959, the Spetner family of five when they left California had grown to nine.
Here is my Dad in his office down at the chair factory
While it is not my job here to recall my entire childhood, for after all, this story is about my father, I must point out some highlights and interactions with my Dad that led to my inheritance. From the time I entered 1st grade I was sent to the
EpsteinHebrewAcademy. Both my mother and my father were firm believers in a good Jewish education. My mother was always active at Epstein (in between childbirth), and my father’s good deeds always included the Academy- Countless gifts of chairs, wood pieces, desks and anything else the Rabbi could think of, my father shlepped into the 7 different buildings I attended during my 7 year tenure at the Hebrew Academy. Despite my numerous complaints as I grew older that other kids got to go to good schools, I got on the bus each morning and headed for the Academy.
I was a mischievous child, but my father always had a clever answer for my (mis)behavior. Once when I was about 11 years old, I stole a pack of his cigarettes from the dashboard of his car and took the ciggies to school. When recess came I passed them out to all of my contemporaries and we puffed away on the recess lot. Of course, we got caught and a very angered and stern Rabbi Uri grabbed me by the ear and into his office where he proceeded to call my father at work to report his son’s activities-
Rabbi Uri, with his thick greenhorn accent described to my father over the phone the serious nature of my action. Kids could catch fire, parents would complain, the school would burn down. He then hung up the phone and I figured the whipping I had coming would wait until Dad got home that night....WRONG. When I jumped off the school bus, his car was in front of the house. I was shaking, but opened the door and went into the house. There in the kitchen sat Buddy with my Mom. Mom took the kids and they headed upstairs so that I could be alone with my father.
As I stood petrified, Buddy calmly said...”I heard you like to smoke?” I answered Yes with a quick smile and he replied, “Well if you’re going to smoke, then I’ll teach you how. He then proceeded to pull a cigarette from his shirt pocket and lit one for me- “Go ahead. Puff away, he said. Of course, I wheezed and gagged and he kept insisting- Go ahead, another puff, finish. My eyes were already tearing from the smoke, when he snatched the last inch of my Pall Mall and put it in the ashtray. In its place, he produced a pipe and tobacco and then had me put the pipe in my mouth while he lit a match and told me to draw in on the pipe. The smoke came so fast I instantly choked and almost puked.
“Sit down”, he now commanded, and lit another match.”Smoke!.... you like it”, he said. I never knew a pipe could bite but my 8 year old mouth had already begun to turn sour and hurt.
Next he pulled out one of my Grandfather’s cigars and began to remove the band from the 5 cent Dutch Masters cigars. I was feeling very green by then and miraculously my Mom appeared and told my Dad that was enough. Buddy simply said “Now son, if you ever want to smoke, don’t hesitate and we can have a cigarette together, but don’t you ever take something that isn’t yours and don’t ever do anything you wouldn’t do in your own home with your own father present. It was a lesson learned and never forgotten. This was typical of my almost continual punishments for various misdemeanors while growing up.
Now while Buddy was manufacturing chairs and Lil was manufacturing children, one might think that this was two busy parents, but to think this was all the two young parents did was as ludicrous a thought as thinking that President Eisenhower only played golf all day in the White House. Buddy immediately became deeply involved intwo organizations that he helped shape into strong institutions and which certainly helped shape him into the extraordinary person he was.
The first, of course, was his beloved Shaare Zedek Synagogue and his unyielding allegiance to his friend and mentor Rabbi Ephraim Epstein. Beginning with his return from the Korean War, Buddy threw himself into helping build the new Shaare Zedek. As one of the young lions he bonded with members of his own generation. Along with his contemporaries like Herman Shanker, Max Tenzer, Dave Hartstein, Leo Wolf and Leo Mirowitz, they forged a partnership with the older generation of entrepreneurs and philanthropists and built Shaare Zedek synagogue into one of the strongest congregations in the country.
This picture was taken in our living room- Rabbi Epstein is in the center- to his
left was Rabbi Arnold Asher who succeeded him and Rabbi Epstein's brother
on the left
At the same time, Buddy was devoted to the idea and the fruition of making the Jewish War Veterans (JWV) a viable political and social organization to help Jewish veterans improve their own lives after World War 2. With his friends from youth, Joe Iken, Irv Bierman, Tom and Bill Goldenberg, Dave Cornfeld, Wally Rosen, Mel Goldstein, Izzy Goldberg and hundreds of others, Buddy became the driving force for the success of this fledgling organization. Elected as the State Commander for JWV in
Missouri, Buddy’s drive continued and by the time his last child was born in 1959 he had been elected to a National position for this Jewish organization. With this came lots of national responsibiltes....responsibilities which blended seamlessly with the rest of his life.
Within a few years he was also elected as President of his Synagogue. A man on a mission one might say, but it didn't stop there. He also was active in city politics in
University City and headed the first Human Rights Commission which ultimately had the courage to write and pass the first public accommodations law in a city west of the
Mississippi. No longer was the sign “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone”
able to hang anywhere in
University City. I had just turned 13 years old when my Dad went out each night during the Summer of 1960. I tagged along and watched him knock on EVERY DOOR in the U City Heights subdivision where we lived. It was not always pleasant, and I got scared more than a few times when a man would come to the door and start cursing over the idea of a Catholic becoming President of the United States.
We were campaigning at the grass roots level for John F. Kennedy for President and I think back now in many ways, my dad’s life was a parallel to JFK’s. Kennedy, of course got elected and I learned lifelong lessons in politics, fund raising, and the hate that existed in the world. No matter, we kept knocking on doors, passing out brochures, debating and participating in our right as Americans to make democracy work.
A side note here about my Mom, Lil. I guess you might say she was a stay at home housewife for she had no job where she punched a clock, but along with Buddy, she was active and assumed a leadership role in the Jewish Hospital Auxiliary, the Epstein Academy PTA and of course in the Sisterhood at Shaare Zedek. The Spetner children always joked that they were raised by the household nanny, Ethel Warren while Mom and Dad were out repairing the world.
Mom and Dad with my brothers Steve and David in the mid 1950's
Less dear reader, you may think that the Spetner children were neglected young kids it was exactly the opposite. Like our parents we were always encouraged to join something where we could develop skills on our own i.e. Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, School Athletic teams, learning to play musical instruments, etc. It was an idyllic childhood and when the 9 members of the Spetner family entered a room, there was an instant crowd and a certain energy which flowed from the entourage.
I always remember the ritual of family meals- No matter how busy Mom or Dad were, every evening we sat down as a family. I also learned some years later, that the cold clear pitcher in the fridge that Dad had two drinks from on his arrival home from work contained extra dry Vodka Martinis. Once he completed that ritual of his two drinks and reading his afternoon newspaper, he allowed each of the kids to approach him and talk about their day’s activities before dinner.
Dinner talk was generally of a serious nature. It was interspersed with consistent editorial comments from both Buddy and Lil. The children’s activities were questioned and commented upon but I felt it was done generally in a healthy and constructive way, although I can remember more than a few times when my antics at school brought forth what I thought were the 10 plagues from the Bible. The idea of negotiating with our parents over anything was as foreign a notion as the
United States giving
New England back to the British. At the same time, justice was decided upon for one’s misdeeds quickly and without remorse by the parental units.
One anecdote which shows the Spetner family dynamic was a system my mother put into place. As her seven children began to each develop their own personalities and test their limits of behavior, Mom began to wear a Cowboy Belt and holster that were popular in the 50’s and 60’s. In place of the two toy six guns which came with the set, she replaced them with Ping Pong paddles. I think after we all went to bed, she would practice her quick draw with the paddles in the holster. I still vividly recall coming in from junior high school one day and proceeding straight to the cookie jar for a quick snack and I needed to wash down the cookies so I opened the fridge and instead of pouring myself a glass of milk, I just grabbed the milk bottle and gulped directly from it. All of a sudden I heard the sound of the dreaded ping pong paddles as they traveled instantly from their holster to my behind. Like I said, justice was swift and uncompromising and I never again drank directly from the family milk bottle…. or at least I looked over my shoulder to make sure Mom wasn’t around before I did. She was little, but she had strong arms and quick reflexes and when she hit, it hurt...
For all of us and especially my Dad, time kept marching on and as he had marched, as a soldier so did he stay in formation on his path through life. Back straight, chin up, gig line perfect, he methodically accomplished more in the middle years of his life than any man could expect. His business with Uncle Charlie prospered and in 1966 they sold Bianco Manufacturing Company to Holiday Inns of
Tenn. After years of 18 hour days, Buddy and Lil were rewarded for all of their hard work. I was away at college and just as I was graduating, the Spetner family had reached the pinnacle of the American dream. They had property, they had the mansion on Delmar, the farm in Bonne Terre, the Holiday Inns in
It is here where I must now stop and reflect upon my father and his life. It is now 1968 and at the tender age of 46, Norman “Buddy” Spetner was at the zenith of his life. Success was everywhere and if you were to ask anyone who knew him how they felt about Buddy, and you would hear unequivocally
from each one, that Buddy was a man among men. He was a successful husband, father, industrialist, community leader, world traveler, and a man who was loved and respected - He had everything, so much so that there is one other anecdote that I must interject here so that you can begin to truly grasp the events which began to unfold from the peak of a man’s life. It is an unnervingstory withlessons taught and lessons learned. On life’s Screamin’ Eagle Roller Coaster, Buddy was poised at the top of the roller coaster - ready to hurtle at unbelievable speed and precision- Exhilarating, scary, yet safe.....except very rarely, there is a “mistake” and the ride runs off the track
When mistakes happen, it causes one to stop and think about the uncertainty of it all. My father, however, was a Believer so as the roller coaster car headed into oblivion to gain speed; he sat securely prepared for the ride and looking forward in anticipation to the thrills which were promised. I believe his life as a pilot prepared him for any unexpected event.
In 1968 the scorecard for Buddy Spetner (and, of course for his wife Lil) read something like this. Buddy & Lil....77, Bad things happening....0, zip, zilch, nada,
With the completed sale of his business to Holiday Inns of
America, Buddy now had the final ingredient for a perfect life.....the American dream....MONEY. This is important to know, because to understand this story and its final outcome, you must understand the MONEY and what it has to do with my inheritance.
For 1968 it was a LOT of money.....over $ 2 Million....and from the day he received it in the form of Holiday Inn stock it began to grow as though all of Buddy’s good deeds and involvement and his unswerving responsibility to “do the right thing” was being rewarded by the Almighty himself. I turned 21 that year and graduated college. Despite my rebellious ways during the 60’s and the peace movement, my life was indelibly intertwined with my father’s success.
My entire time growing up with seven kids in the house, we lived in a 3 bedroom house with ONE bathroom. Finally in 1960 my Dad built what we called “the Pee closet” in a cloak room on the first floor. That major improvement in the necessities of life was soon followed by the purchase of “Buddy’s” house at 7108 Delmar. Typical of my father, he purchased a house that had tremendous potential, but needed a vast amount of vision and hard work. By 1968, the house was ready and the house was EXACTLY right for the Spetner family.
Talk about an inheritance, this house had 7 bedrooms and 7 bathrooms, The living room was 24 feet wide and 52 foot long. It was built for the 1904 World’s Fair by an East Coast Industrialist. From my father’s business dealings in
Czechoslovakia, the factories that made his chair parts bought him a chandelier that had 1500 pieces of Czech crystal which hung over a table that sat 22. The chairs were taller than my Mom. It was a magnificent house for a magnificent man who had the drive and ambition to go anywhere. The house still stands at 7108 Delmar, but it was not left in the will for the next generation of Spetners- read on and you will see why.
We must now stand back from the close up picture of Buddy Spetner and now begin to see where he fit into a rapidly changing world. Truly my father had all the necessary toolsto operate on the world stage. He lived globally, thought globally and
acted globally. He was philanthropic and used his money to continue the good deeds he had always done. Money was not an issue.
During the 1960’s my father pioneered and was the first American to do business with a Communist country. He chose
Czechoslovakia for it was the birth of bentwood furniture. Buddy took me to
Czechoslovakia in 1964. We visited the factories where he had the chair parts manufactured and then convinced the government to let him bring in a container from
Holland and have it loaded to send to
America. The Czech people were downtrodden from WWII and communism. They as a people could have cared less about the business. I learned that on my trip, but more importantly I learned that they met schedules and produced quality because they loved and adored my Dad.
Buddy at one of the factory meetings in Czechoslovakia- 1964
He was not an Ugly American, but a caring man who showed kindness when he could have been a bully.He never came without presents and he spent hours walking the streets of
Prague and in the little factory towns with the men who ran the factories. He made close personal friends, even to the point where one summer he brought home the teenage daughter of his closest friend at the factory to spend a summer with our family so she could see how life could be. To this day it was a handful of men like Buddy Spetner who spread the word throughout Czechoslovakia about freedom and throwing off the yoke of Communism.
As Czechoslovakia began to liberalize,Buddy was absolutely caught up in the “unbearable lightness of being” and found himself conversing at the highest levels of the Czech government. He finally found himself in
Prague the day the Russian tanks rolled across the
Charles River to put down the Czech rebellion. My father’s letters from
Prague are not only enlightening but had an edge of excitement that only Buddy could see. I think he was actually a little sad to leave
Prague when the American Embassy ordered him out.
As my father’s business grew, he began to expand his trips from
Czechoslovakia to also include a stop in
Israel before returning home.Buddy’s passion for
Israel was reaching new levels each day. The first reason was the six day war and the Israeli victory of 1967. Right after the war ended, his daughter Elly, decided to finish her last year of high School in
Israel and then enroll at
HebrewUniversity. This gave Buddy and Lil even more reason to travel to
Israel....and travel they did. From 1963 through 1973 my father made over 40 trips to
My father was enamored with
Israel. He took My Zada (maternal grandfather), Uncle Louis Goodman (at age 90), family friends and, of course, his wife and kids. We all had summer camp inIsrael and my sister Carol and I eachtoured
Europe with Dad for our special summer vacations. Like everything else Buddy did, he made friends in
Israel wherever he went. His enthusiasm for the country was so overwhelming that both his Israeli and American friends were so enthralled with what he began to do. My father was also openly devoted to his mother, from whom I believe he gained much of his strength throughout life.
Buddy and my Grandma in the late 1970's
He was not content with his job as Vice President of Manufacturing for Holiday Inns where he worked daily with the CEO of one of the fastest growing companies in America. Finally, Buddy convinced Kemmons Wilson, the CEO of Holiday Inns to sell him the franchise rights to Holiday Inns in Israel. His timing was impeccable as the victory of the Six Day War made
Jerusalem available to the free world. Tourism boomed and the need for hotel space was incredible. It was all too good to be true. Buddy Spetner, his friends and partners here in
St. Louis now owned the hottest franchise in the very BEST part of the world. Buddy was now poised to accomplish his lifelong dream of living and supporting
Israel while insuring that his wife, children and soon to come grandchildren would have the very best life had to offer.
I, personally was caught up in these heady days as Buddy opened his heart and his pocketbook to everything he was involved with. He and his long time friend Herman Shanker decided to be partners and build condominiums in Ballwin. It was a “can’t miss” deal and as they broke ground in 1969, the American economy was booming, interest rates were low, and our family was beginning to grow again as first I got married in 1970 as did my sister Carol. No one could have written a more perfect story. The Spetner family was the model for how
America and especially how American Jews should live.
I vividly remember the first inkling that something might be awry. I was home from the Army where I dutifully put in my 2 years after being drafted, I had already married my wife Helene and we were staying in the big house on Delmar while we were looking for our first home. I awoke that night to hear my father speaking on the telephone. There was a tone in his voice I had never heard before- I had never known him to be scared, but he was angry and scared at the same time. He was on the phone with the head of the Kibbutz at Ein Gedi, Israel where he had just visited and signed a deal with the Kibbutz to construct a 400 room Holiday Inn. This was the fourth Holiday Inn planned and ground was to be broken first in Tel Aviv the next week and at Ein Gedi only four weeks later.
Without going in to all of the sordid details, basically my father’s Israeli partners were thieves. He had trusted them as fellow Jews and Israelis and that night found about that the money he had transferred into the Israeli corporation to buy land, hire engineers, and begin building was all gone. The Israeli brothers Edelsburg had literally presented forged documents to their American partners and had embezzled a little over $ 1Million of my Dad’s and his partner’s money. Deals Dad thought they had were not deals, they were scams.
The house of cards built by the two Israeli brothers began to fall and even Buddy couldn’t stop the crumbling. He could, however, go to
Israel and right the sinking ship. He put more money into the franchise and got his friends to ante up even more. However, it was now 1973 and by the time the mess was straightened out a number of things happened on the world stage that Buddy never saw coming. First, was the destabilization in the Middle East continued its rapid decline as 1972 gave way to the black year of 1973. It started with the Arab oil embargo and ended with the Yom Kippur War when Egypt, Jordan and Syria attacked Israel on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.
This had two major effects on the world.
Israel basically lost the war and tourism immediately ceased. At the same time the Arab oil crisis caused world panic and interest rates shot up from a miserly 4 % to well over 18% within a matter of months. This did not bode well for anyone in the building business. There was no time to put on the brakes and in one fell swoop, my father was wiped out. With a daughter living in
Israel and 2 other boys back home in college, Buddy stood frantically by as he tried to save his dream.
First, his promissory notes were called by the banks that had lent the money to build the condos in suburban St. Louis. The Israeli venture was completely gone and by 1974 my father had lost almost everything, his house, his dreams and almost his life. The pressure was too great and like his father before him, Buddy at age 52 suffered a heart attack. He was not only physically stricken, but in looking back he was mentally injured as well. It was a sad time for the Spetner clan, but sadder times were yet to come. My mother remained strong and with help from friends and family.
Buddy turned to his friend and religious leader,Rabbi Epstein. Buddy threw himself into his second home, Shaare Zedek Synagogue for his strength and recovery, He was dealt another blow in 1976 when Rabbi Epstein died and at the same time his last boys were finishing high school and he was forced to give up his home on Delmar.
The Spetners still had their pride and a lifetime of good deeds and Buddy found solace in the synagogue as he worked hard once again for Shaare Zedek. He had passed up numerous opportunities to become President of his congregation, but now he relished the job and in 1979, beaten and robbed of his material wealth, he sought moral strength as he became the President of the synagogue he loved.
Within a year of his becoming President, all of the misery of losing his wealth and wounded pride vanished. It was replaced by something even more horrible- the death of my sister Ellen Kay Spetner Fredman in August of 1980. A drunken driver in
California smashed her vehicle into Elly’s car and in that instant, everything that had been lost had no meaning whatsoever. In the midst of our horror, our anger and our tragic and unexplained loss, my father was reduced to just another man, a sad,bewildered and heartbroken man. I will never forget his words as we drove to the cemetery to bury my beautiful sister… “I had never thought about my mortality - now I understand, God truly does rule this universe.”
This was the tragic “last straw” of a rapid, steep and steady decline. My father tried to regain his strength and composure but there was nothing left. My mother was the strong one and over the last five years of his life, Buddy spent his days aimlessly undoing everything he had ever taught us in life. Unbeknownst to his family, a brain tumor had formed in his head and in hindsight we all began to understand his actions. He unwittingly became the charlatan, the con man, the thief, the liar, the fraudster and a man who spent his last years on earth the exact opposite of the way he had lived most of his journey here on earth.
His life came to an end on a cloudy and cold October day, Erev Rosh Hashanah ( the Jewish New Year) of 1986 corresponding to the last day of Elul in the year 5756 on the Hebrew calendar. There was a gasp in the synagogue the next morning as Rabbi Greene announced his passing to the assembled congregation. Not many people knew how sick he was and at 64 years old he was way too young to die.
From this horrible and undeserved experience leading to my father’s death, came my inheritance. Not one penny in currency but a wealth of experience and knowledge that has led to peace and prosperity for my own family. My mother rose to the occasion and honored Buddy’s life by creating a new life of her own. Strong, independent, and living a life that Buddy helped create, she continued to dole out our family’s inheritance every day until she finally succumbed to cancer in 2006.
So now, as my business career is nearing its end, I am able to look back on my father’s as well as my own life. It is easy to count the blessings, recall the wonderful life I have lived and the inheritance I received for the forty years I shared with my Dad, and the 60 years I had my mother.
None of the time was wasted and telling this story brought many tears to my eyes, as any truthful man will tell you…. “No one goes through this life without self doubt, troubles, failures and successes, but each of us has parents who left us an inheritance. Each inheritance is different, and ultimately it is only as good as you make it”
For me personally, my Dad gave me the tools in an inheritance to live a good and happy life. Like him, I have been blessed with a wife who is kind, happy and forgiving and we have found life, love, and the pursuit of happiness. I only hope that I am able to pass this inheritance on to my children and now my grandchildren. I believe I will read "A Father's Prayer before I go to sleep tonight.
Alan Spetner February 21, 2011
The day after my 64th birthday and my 41st wedding anniversary