Friday, February 12, 2016

A LETTER FROM - Sherman Levine

On November 8, 2013, I told the story of young Sherman Levine, who was a military weatherman at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii and was killed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  If you haven't had a chance to read it, go back and take a look:

Sherman Levine's story moved me deeply.  After doing the research and writing the article, I felt like I knew Sherman Levine.  Whenever I watch any documentaries about December 7, 1941, or the movie 'Pearl Harbor' I think about him and wonder where he was in relation to whatever they are showing on the screen.  I received a lot of positive comments about the story and I even heard from Debbie Craig (no relation) whose mother Shirley is the one whose yearbook photos and inscription I had used in my story.

On New Years Day of this year I was contacted by Blair Magida Waddick. Here's what her email had to say:

Dear Mr. Craig--

I read, with great interest, about your research on weather military personnel during WWII.  My parents, Esther and Gil Magida, were very good friends of Sherman Levine.  Mom lived across the street from him at 4915 Monticello and he and Dad were on many sports teams together while at Von (baseball, basketball, lettermen, etc.)  On a visit to Hawaii, they tried to find his grave, not knowing that he was buried at Westlawn, a cemetery we visited often.  I have a letter from him I found in Mom's scrapbook that he wrote while at Hickam Field.  If you would like a copy of this letter, please let me know.  Regards, Blair Magida Waddick 

Blair's father Gil Magida had passed away on July 20, 2004, and like Sherman is buried at Westlawn Cemetery in Norridge.  Did I want a copy of Sherman Levine's letter to his buddy back home?  You bet I did!

So, thanks to the generosity of Blair Magida Waddick, here is Sherman Levine's letter dated May 15, 1941, just 207 days before his tragic death:

May 15, 1941
Dear Character;

Just received your interesting letter and enjoyed reading it very much.  I was very much surprised to hear that you and Esther are sending me a package and even though I haven't yet received it I just want to take this opportunity to say thanks a million.  You see, it takes a little longer for a package to reach here than a letter.  Very nice of you to think of me in that respect, and I really appreciate it.  Well Gil, so you're studying for your exams eh?  Well you're not the only one.  Right now I'm up to my neck in that very same thing.  Yeah, I really am surprising myself, the way I have been studying lately.  As you know I'm learning all about meteorology and it's very interesting even though it is tough.  I work up in the weather station taking observations or rather learning how, and I'm on 8 hours and off 32.  It's a pretty soft life right now.  I went down to the beach a few days ago and some fella down there had a pair of those rubber fins that you attach to your feet and boy oh boy, I could really go with them. Otto Jaretz, and Adolph Kiefer are in town for a swimming meet but I couldn't get to see them, because no one is allowed to leave the field due to an "alert" being in effect, which means that it is sort of a rehearsal in case of an attack; with a black-out and all the trimmings.  I'm sending you a picture, I thought you might like to have it.  So now you drive Esther's father's car eh?  Boy, I certainly could go for a nice girl in a nice car.  Pretty soon everybody will (be) going on picnics + beach parties, right?  Why don't you stay in the city this summer?  You always go away to camp, and there is plenty of fun if you'd stay and go on dates and etc. in town.  But then again going to camp is pretty nice too, so I guess you better do what you think you will enjoy best.  Speaking about a full moon Gil, there is one here every night, no fooling.  But what good is the moon if there isn't a little "scenery" to go with it?  Have you been to this joint called "Michael Todd's" yet?  Well, time is going pretty fast now, and this place is beginning to look a whole lot better.  But, I'm always thinking about the day when I will walk down Monticello Ave. again and then just before I go upstairs to my house, I'll yell across the street "Hey Gil I'm back."  And I think I'm pretty safe in thinking you'll be there, at Esther's house.  Well, say hello to Esther, and your family + "Herb" and all the rest of the mob.  I ought to have your package in a few days, and thanks alot.  Aloha, Sherm June '40 (sic).  

Here's the letter in Sherman's own handwriting and a copy of the envelope it came in:


And here's the photo he enclosed with the letter:

It's a great letter from a great guy.  He misses home, and all his friends, and looks forward to the day that he will return.  He knows he's in a tropical paradise, but what good is it if all your friends are thousands of miles away?

When I got to the part of the letter that says

"I'm always thinking about the day when I will walk down Monticello Ave. again and then just before I go upstairs to my house, I'll yell across the street "Hey Gil I'm back."  

it makes me very sad, because as we know, fate had a  different ending for the story of Sherman Levine.  He never walked down Monticello Avenue again, and when he finally did come back to Chicago in 1947 he came back in a flag-draped pine box. 

Before we say goodbye to Sherman Levine once more, let's take a look at what happened to the rest of the people mentioned in his letter.

We'll start with Gil and Esther.  "Gil" was Gilbert Asher Magida.  He was born in Chicago on June 15, 1922 and died on July 20, 2004.  "Esther" was Esther Harriet Rabinowitz.  She was born in Chicago on November 24, 1922 and died on December 5, 2005.  Gil and Esther were married in 1943.

Esther and Gil Magida

Here's what Blair had to say about her parents:

After high school and some college, he and Mom eloped since he got his draft notice.  He was pretty upset when he was 4F because he was blind in one eye.  So, he continued at  Northwestern and then USC to get his BS and MS in Education.  He and Mom had fifty cents a day for meals while in LA. They lived in one room.  Mom typed his thesis and worked in the USC library and Dad worked for the local park district and went to school full-time.  While in California, he and a bunch of his friends from Von Steuben played basketball in an adult league, just as they did as kids in high school.

Coming back to Chicago, Dad was hired in River Forest as a grade school gym teacher.  Yeah, most of my friends laugh at that, too, since, no, he wasn’t an MD or lawyer or own a company.  But Dad wasn’t just a teacher.  Case in point:  one day I was buying a coat and when I gave the salesperson my credit card with both maiden and last names, she asked me if I was related to Dad and then she told me her story.  Her family moved to River Forest when she was in second grade and now she was the new girl no one befriended.  The kids were really mean. So Dad found out about it and one day when she was not at school, Dad spent much of the class talking about being a “good citizen” (remember that term?!) and kind to everyone.  She said when she came back to class, the kids were totally different.  She stayed in River Forest only one year, and I met her some 30 years later.  But she told me she will never forget how special he was and how he acted on her behalf.  

Dad did this all the time.  His kids knew about being a good sport and a gracious winner. They were taught respect.  Everyone who wanted to, played in every game or activity.  And after he took human anatomy class, he never again let his kids hit the soccer ball with their heads—in the 50’s.

Growing up in Oak Park, I found out that both Mom and Dad were members of what was then called The Hemlock Society and actively fought for fair housing in our lily-white suburb.  And everywhere they lived, they were active in synagogue life.

When Sherm talks about “camp”, it’s Camp Interlaken for Boys (Jewish—but not required-- and private) which was in Eagle River, Wisconsin. Dad’s Uncle Herb Magida was an owner and later Dad owned the camp with Joe Kupcinet, (the brother of famous columnist Irv Kupcinet), at the camp every summer, working his way up from camper to counselor to Camp Director.  He later became part-owner of a girls’ camp which I attended.

Leaving River Forest after more than 40 years, he was hired by Park Ridge schools as Curriculum Supervisor where he hired and trained teachers, etc.  He was also on school boards, (bringing a different perspective), taught college courses for several universities, wrote articles for professional educational journals, was active for local political candidates, and donated his services to the Village of Lincolnwood, where they lived, for all kinds of Village-sponsored activities.  And there’s lots more, but you get the idea.

Dad was a true gentleman, always believed in fairness, had an outstanding sense of humor, believed in the goodness of man and thought all deals should be sealed not with lawyers, but a handshake. Mom was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known.  In one class at USC, a prof encouraged her to go to law school, saying he’d pay for all her books (in 1943).  She was kind, very funny, and devoted to us.  I was raised with love and support, and encouraged to pursue any profession, and not just girlie-ones.  Mom and Dad were joined-at-the-hip, totally devoted to each other from the time they were 14.  It was an amazing love affair and it lasted over 60 years.

I won the Parent Lottery and no one is luckier than me.

Gil and Esther Magida

Gil and Esther were blessed with three children: Blair, Paul and Stephen. They never forgot their friend Sherman Levine from Monticello Avenue. On a trip to Hawaii they tried to find his grave but could not because unbeknownst to them he was buried back in Norridge, Illinois at Westlawn Cemetery, where Gil and Esther are now buried as well.

Otto Carl Jaretz, Jr. was born February 12, 1922 in Chicago.  In August of 1929 when he was only seven years old he was almost killed when his aunt Emily Strahamer committed suicide by opening all the gas jets in her kitchen.  Just as Otto and his uncle were climbing into the house through a window to try to save Mrs. Strahamer, the gas ignited and Otto and his uncle were badly burned.  As Sherman mentioned in his letter, Otto Jaretz was a competitive swimmer.  He held U.S. records in the 200-, 220- and 100-yard freestyle in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He was also a member of four national record-setting relay teams, won six AAU individual and six AAU relay titles and was on a world record-setting relay team in 1938.  Otto enlisted in the military in 1942.  Otto Jaretz died on March 14, 2006.  He was survived by his wife Lorraine and one daughter.

Otto Jaretz - 1939

The other friend Sherman mentioned in his letter, Adolph Kiefer, was also a competitive swimmer. Adolph Gustav Kiefer was born in Chicago on June 27, 1918.  He had his first swimming experience after a near fatal fall into a Chicago drainage canal.  He accidentally fell into the ice-cold water, but rather than panic, young Adolph simply rolled onto his back and began to kick his feet until he reached dry ground.  Falling into the canal prompted Adolph to learn how to swim and, with the encouragement of his father, he devoted his life to becoming the best swimmer in the world.  As a youth Kiefer swam every day for hours on end, and by the age of 16 he became the first person in the world to break the one-minute mark in the 100-yard backstroke.  This monumental record would stand unbeaten for another 15 years.

Adolph Kiefer

Adolph Kiefer's unrelenting passion for swimming, and his steadfast determination, paved the way for an historic swimming career filled with countless accolades and accomplishments.  Adolph's crowning achievement came in 1936, when he won a gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke event at the Berlin Olympics.

Adolph Kiefer at the 1936 Olympics

In the late summer of 1942, at 23 years of age, Adolph entered the Navy as a Chief Athletics Specialist in the Physical Fitness/Swimming Division.  Kiefer was immediately alarmed by the inadequacy of the Navy's Swim Training program.  Shockingly, Kiefer soon realized that several high-ranking Officers didn't even know how to swim, and the Navy was actually losing more lives to drowning than bullets.  Consequently, Adolph designed and implemented a comprehensive swim training program for 2 million recruits on 6 different bases.  According to Adolph, "The biggest thrill of my life was having people tell me that I saved their life by teaching them the 'victory' backstroke".

Inspired by his work in the Navy, Adolph Kiefer established Adolph Kiefer & Associates in 1947. Soon after establishing Kiefer & Associates, Adolph began working on several new revolutionary innovations that would change the sport of swimming forever.  By 1948, Kiefer had developed the world's first nylon swimsuit.  Around the same time Adolph invented the kickboard, which has helped a countless number of individuals learn how to swim.  In the mid 1950s Kiefer introduced the world's first turbulence resistant racing lane.  He was also the first person in the world to distribute the soft molded swim goggle gasket.  Kiefer reinvented several other swim safety devices over the years, and his company continues to be at the forefront of swimming innovation.

As of this writing (February, 2016) Adolph Kiefer is still living, and still swimming every day.

So thank you to Blair Magida Waddick for sharing Sherman Levine's letter to her father.  Thanks to her also for giving us the "story behind the story."  When I relate these stories on my blog I am limited to reporting whatever information I can glean from the Internet or other sources.  That's what makes it so nice when someone wants to fill me in on the human side of the stories that goes beyond facts and dates.

Sherman Levine and his friends:  Gil and Esther Magida, Otto Jaretz and Adolph Kiefer - just a great bunch.  They come from what is called "The Greatest Generation" because they were.  May Adolph Kiefer continue to enjoy long life and good health and may Sherman, Gil, Esther and Otto rest in peace.    

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