Time advances at a relentless pace. It seems like life moves as though through a movie projector operating at triple speed. As Virgil commented, “It flies never to be regained.” We desperately try to slow its unyielding march by celebrating milestones: birthdays, graduations, anniversaries, weddings, etc. The hope is that we can somehow slow the process, take a breath and enjoy the experience before it, too, becomes a distant memory.
As a community, we have shared experiences which form rungs in our collective memory. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy and the events of 9/11 are just a few of the events forever embedded in our mind’s recesses.
Thankfully, even on the community level, our mind’s historical markers are not all of the tragic variety. Our favorite sports teams’ significant victories live on in our mind’s eye, often for a lifetime, providing countless moments of joyous recollection. The Olympics, which we have just experienced, provide yet another example of shared memories that can last in perpetuity. My Olympic recollections begin with the Winter Games in Squaw Valley, Calif,. and continue to the present.
With each Olympics, I find myself in awe of the dedication, perseverance and achievement of athletes who spend years training for this international competition. For the few who finish first, we can only imagine their feelings of pride and triumph as the gold medal is placed around their neck. For them, their years of sacrifice and preparation are gloriously offset by the well-deserved worldwide recognition of their excellence.
This year, as I watched athletes receive their medals, I wondered what it would be like if we were magically given the power to bestow medals upon people whom we thought deserving of recognition. Who would we honor and why?
I have been so blessed in my life that my list would be exceedingly long. From family to friends to acquaintances, I consider myself so fortunate to have encountered such inspiring people. There is, however, one person I haven’t thought of in a long time whose dedication, excellence and compassion I would like to share with you.
It was the summer of 1973 and I was an intern at the Legal Aid Society’s housing division in the Bronx. Our office was a run-down affair on Southern Boulevard right above a deli. We had certain times for “intake” where our waiting areas filled with families seeking help to keep their homes or find new shelter. Usually, their situations were dire and very often their ability to survive depended on the dedication, perseverance and skill of the lawyer assigned to handle their case.
The head of the office was a legal aid lawyer named Jerry Mann. He was already in his sixties and had practiced law for close to 40 years at the time, yet he was as vigorous and as dedicated as anyone who worked for him. He had spent his whole adult life helping poor people find or maintain housing and he had the uncanny ability to solve almost any problem with the skill and ease that only experience and compassion provide.
One Friday evening, only he and I were left in the office. It was considerably past closing time and we were getting ready to leave when I heard a knock on our now locked door. Upon answering the door, I was confronted by a crying young woman with three young children who begged me to help her. It seemed like the logical thing to do was to ask the woman to come back on Monday because both Supervisor Mann and I were halfway out the door. Besides, there was not much we could do, given the lateness of the hour. But Jerry insisted on listening to her impassioned plea. Her story, which was barely audible through her sobbing, included the fact that her lodgings were so bad that her baby had been bitten by rats while in her crib. She told us she could no longer go back to that apartment but didn’t know what to do or where to go.
Jerry Mann sat back down at his desk and spent the next three hours making phone calls. I have no idea who he called, nor do I remember exactly what he said, but I can recall the passion in his voice. He was finding a home for this family even if it took all night. While we were waiting for Jerry to see what he could do, I was commissioned to go out and get food for this young mom and her kids, who hadn’t eaten all day. At around 9 p.m., Jerry’s efforts were rewarded and the family was going to have shelter that night. A week later, the young woman returned to the office and was assisted in finding permanent housing. She expressed her gratitude that Jerry had cared so much about a complete stranger. But, that’s exactly what he did his entire life.
My summer internship soon ended and I returned to Fordham Law School for my final year. Like so many events in our lives, that dramatic Friday night crisis seared forever in my mind a vision of the attorney I wanted to be. Jerry Mann was to be my inspiration as I set upon a career to help indigent clients. Jerry was to finish his career as he had started it, serving with every ounce of his being poor people who so desperately needed his assistance. If ever there was a person who deserved a gold medal for compassion, dedication and perseverance for a lifetime of selfless giving to others, it is my old boss in that dingy office on Southern Boulevard.
Although it feels like a lifetime ago, I will be forever grateful for the inspired example he set for me.
Jim Martorano is a former Yorktown councilman (1991-2010).