Turning from some of our newest members to one of our life long members, Steve is another in our line of native Minnesotans.
This one was easy to write. Steve and I have often served as co-hosts at various temple events, everything from fundraisers and Purim (he’s a great straight man, though he would argue the opposite), to leading daily services. We’ve been roommates at the Brotherhood retreat, and for years now have paired up as buddies with a couple fellows in the Jewish disability community, tag teaming at car shows, music in the park, and any restaurant that has free refills. Steve continues to serve many roles, including as a past president of the congregation, current member of its clown group, and a frequent lay leader, most recently leading the study group on Yom Kippur.
He finished his undergrad studies in philosophy at the U, and as you might expect, followed that with law school at Washington University in Saint Louis. The best parts of his story will likely be found in the memoir he is writing and hoping to finish soon.
The photo was taken in the James J. Hill library, where we met recently while attending a weekly ‘meet up’ of entrepreneurs. It dawned on us that together we raised the average age of that group, at times feeling more like contemporaries of James J. Hill than the Silicon Valley upstarts around us.
I was born in Saint Paul, in Highland Park, and my dad also grew up in Highland Park. His formal name was Irving, but everybody knew him as Sonny. My mom was raised in Rochester, New York, and her name is Fern. They met at a wedding in Rochester, and my dad proposed very quickly thereafter. She moved here to Saint Paul and they continued to be lifelong residents of Highland Park. My mom is alive and well, she just turned 87 in June, so she’s been a member of Mount Zion for something like 65 years.
What did your folks do?
My dad initially worked with his father running a men’s clothing store in South Saint Paul, and he took that over when my grandfather died. Then my dad bought a full clothing store, which was the largest department store in downtown Stillwater. He and my mom ran that store until my father’s death in 1978. My mom continued to run that store until 1986 and then she sold the business. They bought that store from the Janda family, which had started it in the very early 1900s.
Did you work in the store?
I did. I worked there as a teenager, summer vacations, winter vacations, doing everything from selling to stocking shelves. As a kid I used to go with my parents to the merchandise market, in what is now International Market Square, and we would order merchandise from the wholesalers that were there.
Is that where you got your taste in clothes, from that experience?
Yeah. Both my parents liked to refer to my family as ‘sartorial splendor’. They loved clothes, though they always regarded value more important than label.
And what about growing up?
I grew up as the middle child, between older brother Chuck and younger sister Robin, right on the corner of Edgcumbe Road and Davern, so one block from the high school. And now I live three blocks from there, still in “the Park”.
My dad was a gadget person, he just loved new gadgets. We were the first ones to install central air conditioning in the neighborhood. I remember my father was very persnickety about whether he would allow my mother to drive, but eventually he bought her a 1974 Chevrolet Chevelle sedan. But for business purposes he would always have a large Ford station wagon, and every one had to have the wood grained paneling. And that’s what I learned to drive. But I failed my driver’s test the first two times because I kept knocking over the cones when I would parallel park. Then we realized that perhaps I should take the exam in her car – a small sedan. And I passed the third time.
Can you tell us about your marriage?
I went to law school in St. Louis for three years, and that’s where I met Deb, who was from Chicago. She was an undergrad at Wash U studying psychology, and we were married in 1979, the summer after I had graduated. We both moved here, she continued her graduate studies in psychology at the U, and I started my own law practice in Golden Valley, in a modest building that was owned by two other lawyers.
So I hung out my shingle. I did that for about a year and a half, and then I took the civil service exam for the City of Minneapolis, and did well on that, so I became an Assistant City Attorney in the Criminal Division. And I did that for five years, before I was promoted and transferred to the Civil Division, where I worked for a couple more years, doing things like worker’s comp, collections work, data privacy for the city.
We had Yael in 1986, but eventually there were challenges and that marriage ended.
Did you have any memorable cases during those years?
I do have a story in my memoir – I was prosecuting a prostitute who had AIDS, and she had been convicted a number of times previously. And at one point the State Department of Health got involved and wanted me to have her provide the names of all of the men she had been with. And she had them. I talked to my boss, and he just wanted a conviction, but I said ‘do I have to do that, or can I just do what seems best to resolve this case?’. Eventually, he gave me complete independence, and I continued the case toward dismissal, but with a conditional guilty plea, on the condition that she release the names. Ultimately she did not comply, but she was later convicted on a similar charge and did go to jail.
But I felt that it was more important to try to work with the state, for the health of those people, than to just convict another prostitute.
Do you stay in touch with her?
Not too often, no.
Can you continue the story of married life?
I met Mary Beth when she was a law clerk in the city attorney’s office. She had graduated from Hamline Law School but has never practiced. Then she moved to Cleveland to be with her extended family, so I moved with her and got a job there, with an insurance defense law firm, and I became the senior associate in the firm. We were married in Cleveland, but ultimately, that law firm folded nine months after I got there, so I moved back and got a job in the insurance defense field.
And Richard was born in 1998, by then we had been back for a number of years. Though that marriage has ended as well.
And I have been in solo practice since about 2000. I left insurance defense so I could do less litigation, because I had done so many jury trials, and I didn’t have a good work-life balance. And I wanted to do more along the lines of mediation and arbitration. Ever since then I’ve put together my general law practice, focused on small business work, contracts and employment law, along with end of life documents for people. I have also been teaching trial skills as an adjunct professor at William Mitchell – been doing that for about ten years.
Tell us about your memoir.
There is a great story to the beginning of it! I was teaching a Torah study class at Mount Zion, and they were all bright, engaging older adults. And at the end of one class I apologized, and said I am not going to be able to be here next Tuesday because I’m taking my mom to the hospital for cataract surgery. Well somebody jumped in about his cataract surgery, and another woman about hers, and soon everyone was talking about their health concerns. And one woman by the name of Rosemary started talking about her recent colonoscopy, and her polyps. And I left the building thinking, ‘I’ve got to write this stuff down’. So I did, and I started thinking I am going to just keep writing stories, either professional stories about the cases I’ve tried, or just personal stories. And it just sort of developed from there. And the working title for the past four years has never changed – it’s called Rosemary’s Polyps. She’s given me permission to use that name, and I hope to, unless a publisher chooses to change the name. I’ve hired an editor about a year ago, and he’s suggested I write just a couple more stories and we can be done.
I assume it will include stories stemming from your role as a lay leader.
I actually considered becoming a rabbi three times, once within the last year or so, and I had different reasons each time for not pursuing it. I would say that on a professional level my one big regret has been not following that path.
When I was a teenager, our then rabbi at Mount Zion was Fred Schwartz (z’l), and he said ‘Steve, you can be as involved a Jew as you would like as a lay person, without having 750 bosses”. Well, as a teen at the time, I didn’t really understand what he meant, though I do now. And shortly thereafter he moved to what turned out to be the largest congregation in Chicago, which is where he was from originally and where his mother attended. And so I didn’t pursue it at that time.
And then I thought about it again when I was about 50, and I had been approached by Rabbi Spilker, who was relatively new here at that time, and he said ‘I’d like you to attend a tea, to meet the President of the (Hebrew Union) seminary’. He traveled around to meet with young people, and to talk to them about a career in the rabbinate. So they were all much younger than me, but I talked to him about the rabbinate as a second career. He was very encouraging, but he also gave me some things to consider. First of all, Richard was only six years old, and for the first year of the program I would need to live in Jerusalem, and I just didn’t want to be away from Richard for a year.
Then I thought about it again about a year ago and I looked into alternative programs for ‘smicha’ (rabbinic ordination), other than the traditional path through the Reform seminary, which would take several years and was too expensive. I didn’t think I would find a job after the seminary, so I wanted to do it in a shorter period of time. But ultimately, looking at the programs and talking to Rabbi Spilker about it, it was pretty clear that that wouldn’t have been the best path either. He convinced me that you really do need the full length education. And that made a lot of sense to me.
What is life like now?
I continue to have some health concerns, but I’m getting by. For a couple years now I have been dating Bonnie. We had met on an online dating site, and unfortunately, she had lost her husband to illness a few years ago.
One of the things that we share is a love of baseball. Bonnie grew up in Queens, and lived in California before moving here twenty years ago. She is a CPA, though retired just this past May.
She has a great passion for the Yankees, which does not bode well with me, but she’s had season tickets to the Twins for about fifteen years (which apparently does bode well with him). So I’ve been going to Twins games with her ever since we met. We decided to plan these vacations and tried it out this summer. We took a driving vacation and went to six ballparks, one minor league park on Coney Island, and six east coast games including the Yankees, Boston, Cooperstown, back to New York for the Mets, then Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington DC before heading home. And it was a delightful trip. So were going to keep doing these tours until we’ve hit every professional stadium
As we finished, and left the library, I was reminded of a photo that I had run across recently. I had taken it during our Sesquicentennial (Oct. 29, 2005, to be precise), at a panel discussion, moderated by Steve, that included a return visit to our congregation by Rabbi Schwartz. The admiration is apparent, on so many levels.