For good or ill, the larger and more enriched aspects of my intellect were formed at the foot of an eccentric millionaire who lived like a hermit, had no children and held onto every penny like they were welded to his fingers. The man who owned the jelly factory next door to my house taught me politics, science, astronomy and a love of music, books and newspapers. My mother never questioned what I was doing in the factory every day after school, or why the man did what he did.
His name was Christian Shulthies, and he owned the Triangle Preserve Company and half of what is now Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Chris, as we called him, would today be the subject of whispers and nods—and it would be a shame.
Having never had a father, it was not only nice to have that influence, it was a gift that keeps on giving to this day. Now, my grandson and I go to astronomy shows and bookstores. My daughter and I, before him, went to museums and concerts. And I make my living by talking about politics and other topics sucked out of as many books and newspapers as I can get my hands on.
The biggest gift of all, probably, was a work ethic. From those formative years of riding on the back of the truck (eating strawberries and other delicacies liberated from their tyrannical packaging), putting labels on jelly jars and placing those jars into cooling racks—all for no money, just the privilege of working—I learned not only to give an honest day's work but how satisfying it was to finish what you started.
Today, people might call him weird. Why, they might ask, does he have those young boys hanging out at the factory? Why are they always on the truck? Where does he go with them? Why doesn’t he have a wife?
For the record, Chris was a giving, kind and thoughtful man who knew that we kids on “the other side of the tracks” could use a little guidance. In my case, he knew I had no male parent. He was pure and honest.
I can’t help thinking in the wake of the Penn State Sandusky case, or the newer Syracuse scandal, how these coaches have cast a cloud over the countless numbers of men who give their time and energy to young boys with only the best of intentions. Men who feel empathy for the kid who has no role models or resources. Men who volunteer to coach baseball and soccer for no money or a stipend, or who work at the Boys and Girls Clubs.
This column is for them, and for Chris.
How shameful it is that those few others taint the tradition of selflessness of those good men. How sad is it that there are far too many who knew and did nothing in order to protect the “brand” of a school or sports program.
The failure of others to act may well be the most tragic story. There will always be pedophiles and predators. But there may not always be men willing to give of their own time for the sake of some young person if doing so comes at the price of a questionable reputation.